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ICE Slow to Deport Detained

Norma Portales, 26, an illegal immigrant accused of an illegal U-turn, wears a monitoring device. Multiple transfers across Virginia left court officials confused. With her are her children, Ivan, 4, Jeffrey, 2 months, and Christopher, 8.
Norma Portales, 26, an illegal immigrant accused of an illegal U-turn, wears a monitoring device. Multiple transfers across Virginia left court officials confused. With her are her children, Ivan, 4, Jeffrey, 2 months, and Christopher, 8. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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By Nick Miroff and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 5, 2008

Illegal immigrants detained as part of the stepped-up enforcement effort in Virginia stay in the country far longer than they should because of a detention and deportation system beset by waste and dysfunction, according to lawyers, detainee accounts and observations of courtroom proceedings.

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Detainees are often held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for weeks, if not months, after they have consented to deportation. Federal officials regularly misplace files or fail to bring detainees to court hearings, resulting in needless additional jail time at taxpayer expense. In some cases, detainees are transported round trip between Arlington County and jails in central Virginia to appear for a few minutes before an immigration judge via videoconference, even though the immigration court is just down the street in Arlington.

During recent court proceedings before an immigration judge, in more than half the cases the government was missing detainee files, did not know where detainees were being held or failed to bring a detainee to a facility with proper videoconferencing equipment. In one instance, the government lost track of a nursing mother who had been separated from her newborn, thinking she was in a Hampton Roads jail; she was sitting in court a few feet away and wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet. In another case, Judge Wayne R. Iskra grew so frustrated over a detainee's missing file that he berated the government prosecutor in open court, asking her, "How would you like to sit in jail for two more weeks?"

"The system is broken!" the judge said.

ICE officials reject claims that their operations are strained, saying the agency has made "significant strides."

"The process is working well," said Marc Moore, assistant director for field operations with ICE's detention and removal program. "We'll continue to make changes and use our staff and resources to identify and arrest the greatest numbers of individuals."

For ICE's Washington field office, which includes the District and Virginia, the average amount of time a detainee is held has decreased from 75 days to 62 days in the past two years, but one reason is that the agency is moving detainees to larger detention facilities in Texas, Georgia and other states when bed space is lacking.

Legal advocates say the system is rife with errors as it grows more clogged. In records gathered this summer by the District-based CAIR Coalition, which provides legal services to immigrants in Virginia jails, government prosecutors came to court without detainees' files in 60 of 162 cases. In 81 cases, ICE failed to bring the detainee to his or her mandatory court hearing.

Handwritten letters from detainees seeking help from immigrant advocacy groups, obtained by The Washington Post, relate tales of lost and inaccurate records and detainees' inability to get even the simplest information about their case status. One desperate inmate wrote that he has been waiting for eight months while his requests to be deported go unanswered; another, also jailed for eight months, said he wants to be deported but that his name had been entered incorrectly into a police database and that he could not get anyone to fix it.

"It's a very frustrating process for everybody," said Ofelia Calderon, an Arlington immigration lawyer. "I had three cases last month where ICE didn't even know my client was in their custody."

The Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review notes whenever a detainee or detainee's file does not make it to the scheduled court hearing, but the agency does not perform a regular audit of those numbers or publish them in reports, spokeswoman Elaine Komis said.

Nationwide, ICE deported or obtained voluntary departures for 338,000 immigrants from October 2007 to August, up from 206,000 from October 2005 to September 2006, when the agency did not include voluntary departures in its totals. A new ICE program known as 287(g) partly accounts for the increase in detainees, as it essentially deputizes local police and jail officers to assist the agency.

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