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.
"What's happening more and more is the police, when investigating a case, will research immigration status," said Rob Robertson, an Annandale lawyer who practices criminal and immigration law.
As a result, defense lawyers and prosecutors are increasingly confronting the complexities of immigration law-a task some have assumed grudgingly.
"It's a minefield that defense attorneys need to understand before entering into plea negotiations in a criminal case, before resolving the case in any way," Montgomery County Public Defender Paul DeWolfe said.
An immigration judge who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly said his cases increasingly involve illegal immigrants charged with relatively minor offenses, such as driving without a license.
"What's growing is the kinds of offenses being brought to ICE's attention," said the judge, who is not based in the Washington area. The judge said he believes that is partly due to the growing concern about illegal immigration in many parts of the country.
"Cities are overwhelmed with the consequences and costs of illegal immigration," the judge said. "It's a concerted effort to get rid of them, get them out of their community."
Denise Slavin, vice president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said that when she joined the bench 10 years ago, local law enforcement officials frequently complained that their calls to immigration agents went unheeded.
"Now, even something that turns out to be a false charge, they get turned over to the department," she said, referring to ICE.
Slavin said Congress has increased funding for immigration enforcement initiatives but has not provided commensurate financial support to the immigration court system. The flood of cases of immigrants convicted of crimes has been especially vexing, she said, because judges must evaluate the complex and fluid intersection of criminal and immigration law, which varies from state to state.
"It's been a big burden on our system," said Slavin, who is based in Miami. "We're dealing with more complex cases and fewer resources."
Elaine Komis, spokeswoman for the immigration court system, acknowledged that the number of immigration judges has remained steady, despite the steep increase in cases they hear. "We feel comfortable that we will be able to deal with any increased caseload," she said in a statement.
Immigration judges and lawyers say the case volume is forcing judges to rule quickly on complicated cases and is keeping people in custody longer as they await their day in court-an issue Myers says the government is addressing by streamlining the removal process in certain cases.
In 1996, a new immigration law dramatically increased penalties for immigrants convicted of crimes. The law established that immigrants-even those who have obtained permanent residence-can be deported if they are convicted of "aggravated felonies," a term for offenses labeled as serious under immigration law.
Christopher Bailey, 23, a Jamaican man convicted of armed robbery last year in Montgomery County, is among the local illegal immigrants whom ICE promptly identified and placed in deportation proceedings last year. ICE expects to deport him after his expected release from prison in 2011.
Damion O. Brissett, 23, a permanent legal immigrant from Jamaica, was sentenced to three years of unsupervised probation for a marijuana possession charge in 2003. But the Baltimore mechanic was recently placed in deportation proceedings because of the case.
His criminal record came to the attention of a customs agent who processed his arrival in October on his return from a visit to Jamaica. Because he had been a permanent resident for more than five years, he was ultimately permitted to remain in the country, according to his attorney, Mary Ann Berlin. The process, however, cost his family $7,000 in attorney's fees and kept him in jail for two months, said his father, Junior Brissett.
"It was crazy," Junior Brissett said. "He'd never been in jail before. He was far away from home."
Didi Bonilla, 29, a Salvadoran mother of four, was never convicted of a crime but came to ICE's attention because of charges brought against her. Montgomery County police charged her in April with failing to report child abuse to authorities.
Bonilla had failed to renew her legal status two years earlier and was ordered deported during a 2005 hearing, which she did not attend. If not for her arrest, Bonilla and her lawyer said, her illegal status could have gone undetected for years, as hers was one of hundreds of thousands of outstanding deportation orders.
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