In the first four months of 2010, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency deported 3,127 people from the five-state region that includes Minnesota -- on pace to be one-third higher than last year.
The federal agency routinely visits county jails to determine which inmates are in the United States illegally.
Although federal immigration authorities say their top priority is deporting criminals, fewer than half of the people returned to their home countries had any criminal convictions. That troubles immigrant advocates, who complain that immigration officials are focusing too much on people without criminal records.
DAILY VISITS TO JAILS
Immigration agents visit the Hennepin and Ramsey County jails daily, looking through booking sheets for people who might be in the country illegally.
They can see which inmates self-report a country of origin other than the United States. They can meet with inmates to ask followup questions, and place holds on them. Inmates can be transferred to federal custody once local law enforcement finishes processing them.
Hennepin County has had a jail screening agreement in place for a number of years, and it has delivered results, pointing federal immigration agents to hundreds of people.
"Over the last three years, I've seen the number as high as 800," said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who runs the jail. "I think even through the first quarter of this year we're on pace for about 650, maybe 700 folks who will self-report that they are in this country illegally."
Stanek said illegal immigrants account for nearly 2 percent of the 37,000 to 40,000 people booked into the jail each year. The Hennepin County Jail receives about $100,000 a year from the federal government to cover the administrative costs of the program.
The Ramsey County Jail in St. Paul also receives daily visits from federal immigration agents. Ramsey County Undersheriff Ryan O'Neill said he was contacted in 2007 by ICE's assistant field office director to set up the program. The agency's agreements with jail administrators do not require any county approval.
"Prior to that, I don't think we were doing much with folks that they may be interested in," said O'Neill. "We didn't have anything in place to regularly contact them about folks that we, for whatever reason, would think were here illegally."
O'Neill estimates that immigration agents find up to 15 inmates a day at his facility, but neither he nor ICE could provide annual numbers.
In greater Minnesota, jail deputies can notify ICE when they suspect an inmate may be in the United States illegally, and the agency can pick them up when the jail is ready to release them.
In Austin, Minn., Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi estimated her staff contacts ICE a few times every week. "About half our jail population is illegal," Amazi said.
A decade ago, immigrants not legally in the country made up only 10 percent of the Austin jail population, Amazi said. Jail personnel recognize some inmates as people who have already been deported twice before.
CASTING A WIDER NET
Through May 24, jail screenings helped immigration officials identify and deport 2,738 people from the five-state area that includes Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska. Of the people deported, 1,359, or fewer than half, had been convicted of a crime.
Two of the deportees were family members of a 43-year-old temp worker from Minneapolis. Marcelina has seen five family members deported since last year. MPR News has agreed not to use her last name because she too is in the country illegally and fears deportation. Earlier this year, her 25-year-old daughter and 22-year-old sister were stopped while driving home from work.
"My sister was pulled over and since she didn't have a license or any sort of ID, she was arrested," Marcelina said. "My daughter was also in the car and was arrested, and then they were deported."
Traffic stops that lead to deportation are increasingly common.
Carl Rusnok, director of communications for ICE's central region, said the agency aims to make sure criminal aliens aren't released back into the streets. But agents have discretion on who they detain, he said.
"If our resources permit, there may be other people that we take into custody," Rusnok said. "We can place detainers on anybody who is actually deportable from the United States. If you're illegally in the country, then you're deportable."
ICE became much more methodical in its jail screenings nationally in 2007. An internal reorganization helped boost the program and send more resources to jails across the country.
SANCTUARY CITIES, NOT JAILS
The arrangement federal immigration authorities have with county jails can conflict with efforts by local police who are trying to work with immigrant communities.
Minneapolis and St. Paul have what are called "separation ordinances." Their beat cops don't ask about immigration status.
That's good policing, Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan said. He needs witnesses, and crime victims to be willing to talk with his officers without fear of deportation. But he often gets grief from people who wish he would crack down on immigrants without legal status.
"I get more hate mail on this subject than anything I've ever gotten in my life," Dolan said. "We're not being soft on crime. We're telling you right now the premise that these individuals are causes for increases in crime or violent crime -- that's not true."
Anyone Dolan's officers arrest and book into the Hennepin County jail can have their immigration status checked by ICE.
Dolan has worked with the Mexican consulate to expand what forms of identification his officers can accept. Mexicans can show an ID card issued by the consulate. They would still face a penalty for driving without a license, but could avoid the trip to jail.
"We're not looking to fill jails with people for traffic violations," said Dolan. "We would love to be able to fill our jails with felons and people that should be there."
Staying out of jail is also the message coming from the Mexican consulate. Mexican Consul Ana Luisa Fajer receives daily notifications about Mexican nationals in custody. Fajer said her message to the community is prevention -- follow all the laws and don't get picked up.
"Don't have the music up loud, have your proper lights, have your cars in good shape, don't drink and drive. All the time! The focus is prevention, because when they are in immigration we cannot do anything and this is very sad," Fajer said. "There are very sad stories about the separation of families."
Nonetheless, Fajer said she receives three times as many notifications of Mexicans being detained by immigration, compared to when she started a year and a half ago. She hears complaints that local authorities are increasingly stopping people who look like they don't belong here.
"Profiling, yes. Racial profiling, it is there," Fajer said. "This is happening. I'm telling you this because the community is telling me all the time."
BEHIND THE NUMBERS
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement memo to field agents leaked to the Washington Post earlier this year detailed stiff quotas for deportations, and suggested ways for field officers to boost non-criminal deportations. In response, ICE announced that it had withdrawn the memo and that the agency does not set quotas.
John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, is concerned about oversight. He wonders if federal immigration authorities are focused on deporting criminals or if they have focused too much on those without criminal records.
Keller also questions whether the agency has effective complaint procedures to address when its enforcement efforts go too far. His office has defended U.S. citizens who have been caught up in deportation proceedings and held in custody for months.
"What we think is happening is that ICE itself is continuing to want to show an increase in the number -- the raw number -- of people that it's removing from the United States," Keller said. "And the only way they can do that is by getting the easiest people that fall into their laps."
Keller wants the agency to provide data on how many of the people being deported from the five-state region are serious criminals. An ICE spokeswoman said the agency does not have that information readily available.
Local jails can decide whether to participate in the agency's screening program. But Congress has given the Department of Homeland Security a much bigger net to find criminal aliens.
By 2013, fingerprints from every person booked into a U.S. jail will automatically go into a Department of Homeland Security database. Almost 400 jurisdictions nationwide are already using the Secure Communities program. Minnesota has not yet been scheduled.