U.S. Steps Up Deportation Of Immigrant Criminals

Julie L. Myers, who heads ICE, points to improved ties with local law enforcement.
Julie L. Myers, who heads ICE, points to improved ties with local law enforcement. (Charles Dharapak - AP)
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By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Immigration officials are increasingly scouring jails and courts nationwide and reviewing years-old criminal records to identify deportable immigrants, efforts that have contributed to a steep rise in deportations and strained the immigration court system.

Long accused of failing to do enough to deport illegal immigrants convicted of crimes, federal authorities have recently strengthened partnerships with local corrections systems and taken other steps to monitor immigrants facing charges, officials said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that in the 12-month period that ended Sept. 30, it placed 164,000 criminals in deportation proceedings, a sharp increase from the 64,000 the agency said it identified and placed in proceedings the year before. The agency estimates that the number will rise to 200,000 this year.

The heightened scrutiny, fueled by post-9/11 national security concerns and the growing debate over illegal immigration, has introduced a major element to the practice of criminal law in the Washington region and other parts of the country with large immigrant populations.

"It used to be two parties in the courtroom: the state and the defense," said Mariana C. Cordier, a Rockville defense lawyer. "Now you know immigration is waiting in the wings."

Two groups of people are now more likely to be placed in deportation proceedings: illegal immigrants who might once have been criminally prosecuted without coming to the attention of immigration authorities, and legal immigrants whose visas and residency permits are being revoked because of criminal convictions.

The number of deported immigrants with criminal convictions has increased steadily this decade, from about 73,000 in 2001 to more than 91,000 in 2007, according to ICE.

Julie L. Myers, the assistant secretary of homeland security who heads ICE, said in a recent interview that she has strived to use technology and improved relationships among local and federal law enforcement officials to multiply her agency's eyes and ears in all levels of the criminal justice system.

"It's such a high priority of mine to make sure that people are not released from criminal institutions onto the street," said Myers, noting that when she took the helm of the agency in January 2006, ICE did not check all federal detention facilities for immigration violators.

Since then, she said, the agency has studied the demographics of correctional facilities across the country and has assigned more agents to check facilities with higher numbers of foreign-born offenders. ICE's Criminal Alien Program created partnerships between immigration officials and jailers at nearly 4,500 detention facilities. Federal agents now frequently visit courthouses and jails to comb through court files. In 2006, the agency opened a division in Chicago that is responsible for screening federal inmates nationwide for deportation.

Additionally, a growing number of police departments -- including those in Frederick and Prince William counties and the city of Manassas -- have enrolled in an ICE training program that deputizes officers to enforce immigration law.

Probation and police officers are also tipping off federal authorities to cases involving suspected illegal immigrants, defense lawyers say.

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