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Newspaper: Immigration agency swamped with non-criminals

DENVER ” Federal officials spend precious time and resources deporting illegal immigrants without criminal records while lawbreakers go free, according to a yearlong investigation by the Rocky Mountain News.

Nationally, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency checks the legal status of only about 60 percent of immigrants who commit crimes serious enough to land them in prison, the News found. ICE recently set a goal of reaching 90 percent by 2009.

About half the people deported by ICE last year in the U.S. and in Colorado were criminals, according to ICE data reviewed by the News. Its investigation will be published in a series beginning Monday.

“If more Americans knew how the system works, they’d be frustrated,” said Tony Rouco, supervisory special agent at the ICE office in Denver. “We all are.”

Immigration officials say the laws they follow and the money they get from Congress aren’t enough to catch those they want the most ” criminal illegal immigrants ” and they wind up with non-criminals who eat up time and resources.

“When you throw the net out, you end up getting everything ” including the strictly non-criminal types who are just out there working and not causing trouble,” said Douglas Maurer, the Denver field office director for ICE in charge of detention and removal.

The News said its investigation also found:

– Local and federal law enforcement officials ignore known illegal immigrants, including some in custody for alleged crimes, because immigration officials lack the staff or places to handle them. Many criminal immigrants were overlooked and went on to commit even worse crimes.

– One in five Colorado prison inmates identified by ICE as potentially worth deporting as of May 2005 had been removed from the country at least once before. They returned to commit crimes and landed behind bars.

– An estimated 640 foreign-born criminals are currently fugitives in the Colorado region ” among 4,000 immigration fugitives in the state who failed to show up in immigration court or vanished before they could be deported.

– In the search for foreign-born criminals, five immigration agents are assigned to monitor 14 eastern Colorado jails and five state prisons. The News found that 19 jails, including the 14, on average held a total of 600 potentially deportable inmates.

– ICE has funding for only 300 of its 360 beds to detain anyone they find and about 40 percent are filled by non-criminals, said John Good, deputy field office director for the Denver ICE office. As a result, ICE cannot pick up most of the 500 suspected illegal immigrants stopped each week on highways by the Colorado State Patrol, troopers say.

Meanwhile, ICE is deporting non-criminal immigrants who often face separation from their families ” people like a Longmont woman who was here legally but faces deportation because she violated an immigration rule and went back to Mexico to visit her critically ill mother and a Korean-Argentinian who missed the birth of his fourth U.S.-born child because he has been detained for more than three months on an expired travel permit.

ICE officials in Denver would not estimate how much of their agents’ time is divided between pursuing criminals and non-criminals. They do say they are putting more emphasis on bigger criminal organizations, such as smuggling and drug rings vs. the street-level drug dealer.

“The old way had proven ineffective,” said Paul Maldonado, assistant special agent in charge in the Denver ICE office. “For every one person we removed, umpteen more replaced them.”


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