Mr. NOAH ADAMS, host:
From NPR News, its ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Noah Adams.
We began this hour with a story about criminal justice and immigration. For decades, the nation's jails and prisons have played little formal role in immigration enforcement. An illegal immigrant could be arrested for a crime, convicted, serve time, then be released without ever being turned over for deportation.
Now, as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, the federal immigration agency has a plan to change that.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: About a year ago, Arlington County Jail in Northern Virginia stepped up its partnership with the federal agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Unidentified Woman #1: Marquez.
Unidentified Man #1: Yes.
Unidentified Woman #1: Okay, there you go. You guys can have seats back where you were, all the way at the end.
LUDDEN: 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(ph) stops by to interview them and figure out which ones can be deported. That could be an illegal immigrant or someone here legally but who's lost that status because of a criminal conviction.
Mr. BRIAN LEWIS (Agent): When did you come back in the United States?
Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)
Mr. LEWIS: Okay, 2003?
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.
Mr. LEWIS: Okay, where did you enter?
Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)
LUDDEN: It turns out this Salvadoran man was already deported once in 2003 and this is his third arrest since then for being drunk in public. He's been using different names, but a fingerprint check turned up his past record. 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 immigration agency's own database.
Mr. JIM PENDERGRAPH (ICE): We know this is going to be a huge workload increase for ICE because of the numbers that's going to be turned up just on a routine fingerprint. Therefore in the initial phases we're going to do it on a tier system, the worst to go first.
LUDDEN: 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 Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says there are efforts to keep detention centers from being overwhelmed.
Ms. JULIE MYERS (ICE): And so a core part of our plan is looking at what sort of incentives, first of all, can we provide for non-violent aliens to go home sooner, and how come we kind of speed up the process for individuals who are eligible to adjust.
LUDDEN: 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 ACLU 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.
Ms. JUDY RABINOVITZ (ACLU): There's a real, real concern that they're going to be giving up their rights unknowingly and that they're going to say, yes, sure, I want to get out of jail, and they're going to say, I'll take, accept deportation, without realizing that they actually may have defenses to deportation.
LUDDEN: 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 only have limited impact.
Professor RUBEN RUMBAUT (University of California, Irvine): 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.
LUDDEN: ICE believes that could still mean several hundred thousand deportable immigrant inmates, but the agency estimates it will take $2 to $3 billion a year to remove them all - money Congress will have to approve.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.
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