For decades, the nation's jails and prisons had little formal role in immigration enforcement. It was possible for an illegal immigrant to be arrested for a crime, be convicted, serve time, then be released, without ever being turned over for deportation. Now, the federal immigration agency has a plan to keep that from happening.
About a year ago, Arlington County Jail in northern Virginia stepped up its partnership with the federal agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
These days, officers compile a list of inmates who say they were not born in the U.S. Then, three times a week, federal immigration agent Brian Lewis stops by to interview them and figure out who can be deported — that could be an illegal immigrant and one here legally, but who lost that status because of a criminal conviction.
Jim Pendergraph of ICE says the plan is for each detention facility in the country to eventually fingerprint every inmate, not just those charged with felonies. Those fingerprints will then be checked against the federal agency's own database.
"We know that's going to be a huge workload increase for ICE because of the numbers that's gonna be turned up just on a routine fingerprint," he says. "Therefore in the initial phases we're going to do it on a tier system — the worst go first."
So, for example, he says, immigrants with a serious criminal record will be held for deportation, but those with lesser transgressions will be released with a notice to appear in court. Pendergraph admits they may well not show, but if they're ever arrested and fingerprinted again, that will pop up in their record and flag them as a priority for deportation.
The Arlington County jail is now holding twice as many deportable immigrants than before the new checks began. Julie Myers, the head of ICE, says there are efforts to keep detentions centers from being overwhelmed.
"A core part of our plan is looking at what sort of incentives first of all can we provide for nonviolent aliens to go home sooner," she says, "and how can we speed up the process for individuals who aren't eligible to adjust."
In other words, if an immigrant has no legal way to stay in the U.S., he can get out of jail early by agreeing to be deported.
Judy Rabinovitz of the American Civil Liberties Union says early parole could certainly be good for some, but she points out immigrants have no right to a lawyer for deportation proceedings and immigration law is incredibly complex.
"There's a real, real concern that they're going to be giving up their rights unknowingly. And they're going to say, 'Yes, sure, I want to get out of jail.' And they're gonna say, 'I'll accept deportation,' without realizing that they actually may have defenses to deportation."
Overall, checking the legal status of inmates is one of the immigration agency's less controversial programs; even many police officers who object to acting as immigration agents on the streets have little problem with doing such checks in jails. But when it comes to the larger effort against illegal immigration, Ruben Rumbaut of the University of California at Irvine, says jail deportations can have only limited impact.
"Almost three-quarters of American adults believe that immigration is causally related to more crime, and yet we find consistently that the opposite is the case. Less than seven-tenths of 1 percent of the foreign born were incarcerated."
ICE believes that could still mean several hundred thousand deportable immigrant inmates. But the agency estimates it will take $2 billion to $3 billion a year to remove them all — money Congress will have to approve.