WASHINGTON – Ten days after a splashy 26-state immigration raid netted 1,187 arrests, about one in three of those apprehended are back on the streets, reflecting a fact of life that immigration officials say they live with every day.
“It’s frustrating. It’s complicated,” said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “But those are the cards we’re dealt.”
The complex, multi-agency raid April 19 on 52 worksites operated by IFCO Services, a Dutch-owned pallet service company, was the largest such investigation and operation ever undertaken by immigration agents, according to federal authorities.
But a look at what’s happened to those taken into custody last week, say experts familiar with the system, reflect the problems of immigration enforcement as much as the operation’s success. About 270 have already been deported voluntarily. Roughly 460 of those arrested are still behind bars – some awaiting immigration proceedings, some being held on prior warrants and some unable to make bond. Another 50 have been referred to other agencies, mostly in law enforcement, Boyd said.
For a variety of reasons, another 400 of the illegal workers arrested have already been processed and released – some because they have families living with them or no criminal records or they are needed for witnesses – often on a promise to appear in court when they are asked.
Tamara Jacoby, an immigration expert with the conservative Manhattan Institute, says the diverse outcomes as well as the raid itself shows the obstacles to effective immigration enforcement.
“They (immigration authorities) haven’t done many big raids in years,” Jacoby said. “They’d pretty much given up on workplace raids. They didn’t find it very effective for exactly the reason that these numbers reflect. Some are jailed. Some go home. Some are back on the street.”
T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing Border Patrol agents, said the numbers pale in comparison to the problem.
“Break it down statistically, and it doesn’t add up to much,” Bonner said. “As impressive as it was, these raids are the result of very complex investigations and there are only a handful of them. There are an estimated 8 million undocumented workers on worksites in the U.S.; in the end, it’s just a drop in the bucket.”
In Dallas, 93 illegal workers were arrested, all from Mexico. Of those, 90 agreed to be deported.
In Houston, of 67 arrested, according to a Houston ICE spokeswoman, only 12 were actually deported. The rest were released.
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“We want them around in case we need them as witnesses,” said Luisa Aquino-Deason. “If we need them, we know where they are.”
The fact that the agency has only 20,800 beds nationwide for detainees influences detention decisions, Boyd said. In the northeast, where illegal IFCO workers were arrested on worksites in Albany, Philadelphia and Boston, all those apprehended are likely to remain behind bars because space is available. In the Southwest, by contrast, voluntary deportation is more practical and effective, allowing ICE to incarcerate illegal immigrants who may pose a danger or be flight risks.
“We are required by law to detain illegal immigrants who have committed crimes or have criminal records, so sometimes we have no choice,” Boyd said. “We’d much rather release someone who’s been arrested for working illegally than someone who has committed a rape.”
But even those who are voluntarily deported are likely positioning themselves for a return to the United States, Bonner said. By agreeing to deportation, rather than going through the time and expense of a hearing, the consequences will be less if they return and are caught.
“That’s why they do it: so it won’t count against them the next time they’re arrested,” Bonner said.
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A previous deportation order carries additional penalties for a repeat offender.
“That’s the bargain that they (ICE) have been forced to make. It’s not worth the time to detain them for formal deportation proceedings, and by leaving voluntarily, the illegal immigrants make it easier to return,” Jacoby said.
Federal prosecutor Tina Sciocchetti, in Albany, N.Y., where the ICE investigation originated, said that despite the large numbers of arrests, her office is more interested in prosecuting seven IFCO managers arrested in the sweep than those who happened to be working that day.
She said her office decided to let the illegal workers deal with the immigration consequences, rather than charge them with crimes.
“We thought that was the fair thing to do,” Sciocchetti said.
But while 400 of those workers remain in jail, the seven managers who were arrested have been released from jail. Three who were arrested in Albany were allowed to post a $20,000 unsecured bond – requiring no upfront money. Those arrested outside Albany were released on their own recognizance with orders to report to a federal magistrate in Albany on May 4.
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