ICE often frees criminal immigrants if homelands won't take them

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 20, 2014 - 8:26 AM

U.S. has few options when countries won’t accept criminals for repatriation.

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In 2013, Omar Kalmio was found guilty of four murders.

Photo: Flint McColgan • Minot Daily News,

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Omar Kalmio was never supposed to get to North Dakota. The Somali national from Eagan was supposed to be deported because of his violent criminal record in Minnesota.

Instead, he was released from custody when federal officials could not send him back to Somalia. Eight months later, he murdered four people in Minot in one of the most deadly crimes ever committed in modern-day North Dakota.

“This may have been avoided had he been deported after that conviction in Minnesota,” said Kelly Dillon, the deputy North Dakota attorney who prosecuted Kalmio.

Like Kalmio, thousands of criminal immigrants have been sent back to the streets of this country in recent years because their homelands refused to take them back. Sometimes, the consequences have proved deadly.

More than 20,000 offenders released in the past seven years include hundreds of convicted murderers and at least five convicted of terrorism, data obtained by the Star Tribune show.

In the Upper Midwest, including Minnesota, more than 85 percent of the more than 800 who have been released are what the government considers their most dangerous offenders. Many have committed additional crimes after being released from an immigration system that appears hamstrung and intensely secretive.

Many times U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) quietly releases the offenders without notifying their victims or local law enforcement, often citing privacy concerns.

“It’s unfortunate that the rules don’t allow somebody that has been convicted and is a foreign national to be sent home,” said Minot Police Chief Jason Olson.

A six-month time limit

In a vast immigration system where ICE makes more than 360,000 removals a year, the issue of what to do with about 3,000 criminal immigrants may seem trifling. But it has proved perplexing.

The U.S. Supreme Court has twice raised serious constitutional concerns about holding immigrants indefinitely, even those with violent pasts. U.S. courts have ruled that federal authorities generally have only a six-month window to get immigrants with criminal histories out of the country, or they must release them. That time goes by quickly when the home countries stall the process or refuse to take them.

Even when the rules might allow ICE to hold a criminal longer, the agency admits that rarely happens because the agency must prove the offender represents an imminent and immediate danger.

Since those rulings in 2001 and afterward, Congress has struggled to set the balance between protecting the public and protecting the Constitution. So far, it has found no answer.

One proposal would refuse visas to any country that refuses to repatriate their criminals. Another would refuse visas to diplomats from those countries.

Frequent targets among the more than 20 countries that routinely block deportations are Cuba, China, India, Pakistan and Vietnam. ICE and the U.S. State Department have been working to expedite the process of removals with resistant countries.

Michele Garnett McKenzie, director of advocacy for the Advocates for Human Rights, a Minneapolis-based human rights organization, recalled clerking in immigration courts in Arizona early in her career, before the court ruling. One of the judges took her to a detention pod and pointed to a group being held.

“The judge said, ‘See that? Those are all Southeast Asians; they are here for life. They are never getting out,’’ she recalled.

She said problems that arise from reoffending immigrants are more of an issue with the penal system than with the immigration system.

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