ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Beginning today and continuing through the weekend, more than 6,000 federal inmates are going home sooner than they'd expected. They're mostly nonviolent drug offenders who became eligible to have their sentences reduced after policy changes made last year by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. A third of these inmates, almost 1,800, aren't going back to a U.S. neighborhood. They'll be transferred to ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, because they are foreign citizens and they'll probably be deported. Maureen Franco is a public defender in the Western District of Texas. Her office has been given responsibility for these released prisoners, and she joins us from El Paso.
Welcome to the program.
MAUREEN FRANCO: Thank you, Robert, happy to be here.
SIEGEL: First, why would a nonviolent drug felon not have been deported in the first place? Why did they serve sentences in U.S. prisons?
FRANCO: Well, because they have to pay for the crime that they committed - for bringing in drugs or being found in the country with drugs.
SIEGEL: And where are they going between their release and what we assume now would be their deportation?
FRANCO: It will depend. Anyone who was caught at a port of entry that only had an entry document, like a local border crossing card, anyone who was a non-immigrant, those individuals will probably be put into an immigration camp and then probably deported within a day or two once they're released from the Bureau of Prisons. And, literally, they'll be sending buses to all along the border to deport people back into Mexico.
SIEGEL: Where they'll get out of a bus and say, here I am, or - no official police presence by the Mexicans?
FRANCO: Usually not.
SIEGEL: Usually not. But perhaps family might...
FRANCO: Family, if they're able to get that information to them, yes. I know that it's hard for the Mexican government 'cause they would like to assist with individuals being released so that they could get home, that they could get food, that they could get clothing, transportation. But the sheer numbers, as you mentioned, 1,800 people, that's going to put a big burden on them to do that.
SIEGEL: Were these typically people who just crossed over into the U.S. rather briefly and sold drugs, or were they people living illegally in the United States and possibly with families on the U.S. side?
FRANCO: I would say that the vast majority that we saw were recruited to cross drugs from Mexico into the United States, that did not have prior records and that they were basically intercepted at the port of entry or they're caught at the port of entry trying to bring the drugs into the United States.
SIEGEL: And do they have any grounds to protest and say, I want to remain in the United States?
FRANCO: No because that's considered an aggravated felony so that is a deportable offense and it can be a lifetime ban from coming back lawfully to the United States.
SIEGEL: I think a lot people listening just assume that of those who would be deported to Mexico, a large number will turn around and come back into the U.S.
FRANCO: You know, I think yes and no about that. I think having served a prison sentence and being incarcerated with individuals who are serving a prison sentence for being found in the United States or attempting to re-enter the United States - and those sentences can be quite harsh - that I think that that could be a good deterrent for someone being released under this prospect, especially because - I mentioned before - this is considered an aggravated felony under immigration law. And so if they were to attempt to come back into the United States or they were found here, they are looking at a substantial sentence for simply, basically, a trespass offense.
SIEGEL: So which days do we think these buses are going to stream across with 1,800 people heading for the border?
FRANCO: (Laughter). I think...
SIEGEL: Tuesday or Wednesday?
FRANCO: I think so. I mean, I think that it's going to be quickly. I think they'll get into ICE custody on Monday - could be over the weekend - and then I think that it's going to be lining them up - the buses - and then shipping them back over to Mexico.
SIEGEL: Wow. Maureen Franco, federal public defender in El Paso, thanks for talking with us.
FRANCO: Thank you.
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