Perry demands immigration action by feds
After a Chronicle investigation, governor urges steps to ensure criminals here illegally don't avoid deportation
By SUSAN CARROLL Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Gov. Rick Perry and members of the state's congressional delegation called on the federal government Tuesday to take steps to help state and local officials ensure that illegal immigrants who commit crimes in Texas remain in custody until they are deported.
In a strongly worded letter to Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, Perry said he was outraged to learn that many convicted illegal immigrants in Texas jails were released after they completed their jail sentences instead of being deported.
In a series of stories this week, the Houston Chronicle outlined gaps in the screening of inmates in local jails that allowed scores of violent criminals, including some ordered deported decades ago, to walk away from Harris County Jail despite the inmates' admission to Harris County jailers that they were in the country illegally.
"Texas has spent the last four years investing unprecedented amounts of state resources to secure our border with Mexico," Perry said in his letter to Chertoff. "To now learn that criminal aliens who have been jailed are being released back into our communities by federal authorities who have neglected to secure our border is infuriating and unconscionable."
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Reps. John Culberson, R-Houston, Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, and Michael McCaul, R-Austin, called on Immigration and Customs Enforcement to improve screening in the nation's jails and better coordinate efforts to identify illegal immigrants convicted of crimes while they are incarcerated. Brady asked for a meeting of the Houston-area congressional delegation to help ICE determine what resources are needed to "close the terrible gaps in detaining and deporting" illegal immigrants convicted of crimes.
The Chronicle examined arrest and immigration records for 3,500 inmates who told jailers that they were in the country illegally during a span of eight months starting in June 2007, the earliest immigration records available. In 177 cases reviewed by the Chronicle, inmates who were released from jail after admitting to being in the country illegally later were charged with additional crimes. More than half of those charges were felonies, including aggravated sexual assault of a child and capital murder.
At least 178 cases in the review involved suspects who absconded, meaning they had bail revoked for missing court dates or allegedly committing more crimes. Some 330 inmates who told jailers they were in the U.S. illegally were later sentenced to a form of probation.
This spring, ICE officials announced a plan to identify and deport the most serious offenders in the nation's prisons and jails, estimating it would cost roughly $930 million.
Agency defends work
ICE officials said they have made improvements in recent months, including providing the Harris County Sheriff's Office and six other law enforcement agencies in the U.S. access to a database that allows jailers to automatically check defendants' immigration history.
The agency also trained nine Harris County jailers in August to help file paperwork to detain illegal immigrants through its 287 g program, which allows local law enforcement to help ICE screen inmates in the nation's 3,100 jails. ICE also removed a record 107,000 convicted criminals from the U.S. in the 2008 fiscal year, which ended in September, officials said.
"I think the numbers speak for themselves," said ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel. "The number of criminal aliens in prisons and jails has more than tripled in the last few years. ... Can we do more? Absolutely. Are we committed to doing more? You bet."
U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, said the system "is breaking down in several places." Poe said he sent a letter on Tuesday to Adrian Garcia, Harris County's sheriff-elect, requesting that he "ratchet up" participation in the 287 g program. He said when illegal immigrants post bond, ICE should file a detainer and pick them up for possible deportation.
"I don't think ICE is trying to solve the problem," he added. "But if they need more money, Congress should certainly be helping to bail out ICE instead of people like General Motors."
Garcia did not return phone calls this week.
Harris County's newly elected district attorney, Pat Lykos, said ICE needs to be in the Harris County courthouse "24-7" and improve screening of illegal immigrants so prosecutors have more reliable information when making bond recommendations and considering plea agreements.
Houston Mayor Bill White said on Tuesday that he plans to call Chertoff to urge for more personnel to deport illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes and have finished serving their sentences.
"Most citizens would far prefer us to spend more money trying to get the violent criminals out of the country than trying to figure out how many years the person who's doing their landscaping has been in the country," White said.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the issue is a law enforcement problem, and added: "In a way it's kind of sad that it gets wrapped up in an immigration debate. The issue really is you've got criminals and you've got a way of getting rid of them. Do it. To me a system doesn't work if you have violent criminals who are just turned back out into society and they disappear. That's a flawed system. I don't think anybody would disagree with that."
Stewart Powell, Liz Austin Peterson, Clay Robison and Bradley Olson contributed reporting.