[Documents menu] Documents menu

Rate of Criminal Deportations Falls

By William Branigin and Gabriel Escobar, the Washington Post,
Monday 12 April 1999; Page A1

The rate at which illegal immigrants are being deported has more than doubled since a far-reaching immigration law took effect two years ago. But despite a key mandate to target convicted drug dealers, burglars, murderers and others who are considered particularly dangerous, the share of criminals among those deported has actually dropped to its lowest level this decade.

Less than a third of the 171,816 people deported last year had been convicted of a crime, according to new Immigration and Naturalization Service statistics. Most of the others were caught living in or trying to enter the country illegally. By contrast, two-thirds of those deported in 1994 were convicted felons.

Nearly three years after Congress launched what it called the toughest crackdown on illegal immigration in a generation, the INS's handling of criminal aliens has emerged as one of the most controversial aspects of the new mandate. The law was aimed at reducing the number of illegal immigrants generally, but it ran into resistance from Democrats wary of potential abuses and from business leaders concerned that tougher immigration enforcement could reduce the labor pool. The law's GOP backers overcame those concerns in part by placing a high priority on criminals.

Republicans argued that they could cut the crime rate__and save hundreds of millions of dollars in detention costs__by deporting more foreign criminals, notably illegal immigrants who frequently evaded detection by the INS after serving their jail sentences.

Since then, the INS has scooped up many more criminals than before, but it has snagged an even larger number of foreigners who had never been convicted of a crime. Of the convicts who were deported last year, moreover, about 5,500 had legal status, and many had to leave behind American spouses or children. The majority had been convicted of some type of drug charge.

The INS attributes the falling share of criminals among total deportees to intensified and better-funded efforts to enforce immigration laws in recent years, and notably to a new provision that authorizes the "expedited removal" of noncriminals who arrive at ports of entry without proper documents.

In analyzing detailed deportation data released by the INS for the first time, The Washington Post found that:

The INS deported a record 55,869 criminal aliens in 1998, up 85 percent from 1994. But of total annual removals, the proportion of criminals dropped from 66 percent in 1994 to 32.5 percent last year.

Of the criminals deported in the past five years, nearly two-thirds had been convicted of drug offenses. More than 2,000 were convicted murderers who had finished their sentences, but many were deported for offenses that carried minor sentences, suspended sentences or probation. The largest percentage increase involved offenses not usually considered felonies, including "breach of the peace."

Mexicans, who make up 54 percent of the resident undocumented population, accounted for 75 percent of the 451,712 aliens deported from 1994 to 1998, topping the list of nationalities by far.

In carrying out the deportations, the INS has come under growing criticism from both sides of the immigration debate.

Immigration rights advocates complain that the INS is detaining and deporting people who have lived in the United States for years or decades, often targeting them retroactively for relatively minor offenses committed long before the law was passed.

The Rev. Nicholas DiMarzio, auxiliary bishop of Newark and a leading defender of immigrants' rights, recently told Congress that INS policies such as the accelerated deportations "reinforce the misconception that many immigrants. . .are to be considered suspect and feared."

Supporters of tighter immigration controls, on the other hand, argue that although deportations have risen sharply, they still are not keeping pace with the influx of illegal immigrants and that too many criminals continue to slip through the system.

"This agency has the resources and legal tools it needs to protect the public from deportable criminals," charged Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee. "But instead of wielding those tools, it's waving a white flag."

A General Accounting Office report in February concluded that the INS "still does not know whether it has identified all potentially deportable aliens" in the federal and state prison systems. The GAO found that too many foreign inmates are escaping detection or are not being processed for deportation in a timely manner, resulting in about $40 million a year in avoidable detention costs.

Russ Bergeron, an INS spokesman, said the agency now identifies all criminal aliens entering the federal or state prison systems. He said the problem lies with criminal aliens who have been incarcerated for years, predating the screening process set up after 1996. The INS is working through this group, but nobody claims the system is perfect, said Bergeron. "But we're committed to working with the states and the Bureau of Prisons and the immigration courts" to improve, he said.

A review of the deportation data and interviews with supporters and opponents of tough immigration controls indicate that poverty may be a key factor in determining who is deported. While some studies have concluded that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native-born, the INS figures show that members of some immigrant groups are more prone to commit crimes or more likely to be caught, or both.

Latinos, unlike the better educated and comparatively more prosperous Asians, are at the bottom of the economic ladder. That may help explain why Asians are underrepresented in deportations. Filipinos, the second-largest immigrant population after Mexicans, hardly register.

By contrast, eight of every 10 Colombians deported were criminals, the highest ratio of any country in the top 10 for overall deportations. Jamaicans and Dominicans also were high on the list, with criminals accounting for 77 percent and 71 percent of each group's deportations, respectively.

Some countries stand out because they do not register in important ways. Canada, which has the fourth highest number of illegal immigrants in the United States, showed a net drop in deportations between 1994 and 1998, the only significant country to do so.

China also stands out because only 9 percent of Chinese deportees were removed for criminal activity__by far the lowest rate of the top 10 deported nationalities. The finding surprised some analysts because U.S. government agencies for years have said Chinese here run sophisticated alien-smuggling rings and distribute heroin on a large scale.

The INS's mandate to step up deportations was not supposed to be controversial. But what was conceived as a clear-cut imperative in the national interest instead became steeped in the ambiguities that surround immigration generally.

In large part, the controversy stems from the wide variety of offenses that now subject people to deportation__ crimes ranging from murders and rapes to misdemeanor drug use and drunk driving.

At one end of the scale, there is little dispute that offenders such as Aaron Joseph, a 59-year-old native of Antigua, deserve expulsion. After a history of spouse abuse, he was convicted in New York of first-degree assault for attacking his former wife with a hammer and pouring acid on her face, permanently disfiguring her. He was recently picked up by the INS in Maryland as a deportable criminal alien.

Nor is there much doubt that deportation may be too harsh a sentence for people like Ray, a 22-year-old Iranian who has lived in the United States with his family of asylum-seekers since he was a year old. He was arrested three years ago on drug charges in San Diego but has since overcome his addiction and has started to straighten out his life, according to his sister. Yet he has been held without bond by the INS since October pending deportation to Iran. That, his sister says, would mean torture or death. The sister did not want the family's name used for fear of retribution.

Much harder to sort out are the murky cases that fall in between, especially when those involved have put down deep roots in this country.

Take the example of Clifford K. Olatunji. The 46-year-old Nigerian was indicted in 1993 on charges that he was involved in a money-laundering conspiracy after police posing as drug dealers conducted a sting operation at Washington-area car dealerships. He was accused of falsifying car insurance policies by allowing buyers to use phony names as part of a plan to conceal the source of cocaine-trafficking profits.

Olatunji pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to two months in a halfway house, two years of probation, a $250 fine and restitution of $2,296. But after he traveled abroad last year, his criminal record caught the attention of the INS, which detained him in February. Last month, an immigration judge ordered him deported despite his pleas to remain.

"I was bedeviled and did not exercise good moral judgment," the Beltsville resident wrote. He described himself as "a hard-working husband" and father of four U.S.-born daughters, a foster parent of two other girls, a "devout Christian" and an assistant treasurer in his church.

"My children are worried, crying aloud not to be homeless," his Nigerian-born wife, Omotayo Ajani-Olatunji, 41, pleaded in a letter to President Clinton.

"I'm going crazy," added Ajani-Olatunji, a D.C. government employee and U.S. citizen since 1994, in an interview. "I cannot make it. I've got medical problems and financial problems."

Government documents relating to Olatunji's case paint a more complex picture, however. He originally came to the United States as a student in 1976, was twice caught working illegally and was eventually ordered deported, but jumped bond and disappeared. He was finally arrested and deported in 1982, but quickly returned to the United States using a fake Nigerian passport. Later, after his application for amnesty was rejected, he obtained legal immigrant status through his marriage. Then came the 1993 arrest that led to his current predicament.

Olatunji's lawyer, Myrtle Robinson, said she has filed an appeal to challenge the retroactive application of the 1996 law in his case. However, she is barred from arguing the merits of her client's plea to remain in the United States.

"That's what's wrong with the new law," she said.

Copyright 1999
The Washington Post Company

[World History Archives]     [Gateway to World History]     [Images from World History]     [Hartford Web Publishing]