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Illustration: Immigration.

Nancy Ohanian, Tribune Media Services

Immigration and sequestration: Accidental justice?

  • Article by: VIRGIL WIEBE
  • March 5, 2013 - 8:46 PM

In recent days, much has been made of the release of immigrants being held in detention centers and jails around the country. We are told these releases are due to budget cuts imposed by sequestration at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

It is ironic, to say the least, that it has taken sequestration to raise questions about a situation known to many as “Deportation Nation.” According to a New York Times review of Homeland Security statistics, “deportations under the Obama administration are on track to hit two million by the end of this year — nearly the same number of deportations from the United States between 1892 and 1997.”

Many of those deportations are the result of the detention of low-level offenders (like speeders and people driving without licenses).

Despite protestations by the administration that priority has been given to deporting people with criminal convictions, more than 50 percent of those deported over the past four years have not had such records. This is, simply put, an ineffective use of taxpayer dollars.

The recent releases raise important questions. Why are we spending between $120 and $160 per person per day to detain more than 30,000 people? For fiscal 2013, the Obama administration requested $1.96 billion for DHS custody operations. Why are we spending $2 billion dollars a year on such operations? Are there more cost-effective alternatives to detention? Does the detention and deportation machine, revved up to record levels, need to be slowed in light of impending reform to the immigration system? And how and why are people ending up in detention in the first place?

Efforts are underway to provide an effective, lower-cost and more-humane alternative to detention while providing incentives for people to follow through with the process. These efforts are funded by a small grant from the Lutherans and Presbyterians.

I and my students at St. Thomas join efforts with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota and the Advocates for Human Rights to secure legal representation. Guadalupe Alternative Programs of St. Paul, as well as social workers and psychologists from St. Thomas, provide case management and therapeutic services. A group of volunteers called Conversation with Friends visits people in detention. In cases where an individual would need housing for a short time, St. Stephen’s Human Services, Simpson Housing Services and Sarah’s … an Oasis for Women are contacted.

Releasing people from detention does not mean letting them off the hook. They still are required to appear for hearings. Failure to appear results in an automatic removal order and the risk of summary deportation. According to Homeland Security, existing alternatives range in cost from 17 cents per day to $18 per day. Really. And people do show up for their proceedings.

As for some of the other questions — about how and why people end up in detention — my student colleagues and I are plowing through a data set concerning immigrants arrested by local law enforcement and turned over to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), resulting in many deportations. In some of these cases, no criminal charges were ever filed, or minor convictions are entered (like driving without a license).

In other cases, criminal charges are pending when a person is turned over to ICE. While the criminal prosecutor has the power to issue a writ to ICE requesting that the person not be removed from the United States until the criminal case is resolved, this often does not happen.

If the person ends up being deported, those criminal charges are never resolved. When the person does not show up for their pending criminal case, a warrant for their arrest is often issued, even though the prosecutor and judge should be aware that they likely have been deported. The result, whether intended by the prosecutor or not, is that the criminal justice system ends up using the civil immigration process to, in effect, try and convict persons for low-level offenses.

The de facto sentence for driving without a license? Or sleeping on a friend’s couch when the apartment is raided by ICE looking for someone else? Deportation and separation from one’s family.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, in 2010, “nearly two-thirds of unauthorized immigrants had lived in the U.S. for at least a decade and nearly half (46%) were parents of minor children.”

Do we need respect for the laws of our land? Indeed we do. But those laws should be fundamentally just in the first place. And they must be enforced fairly.

The immigration system is broken, and most Americans recognize that it must be fixed. People who have been members of our communities for years deserve a chance to come out of the legal shadows.

Ironically, the sequestration may end up moving us from being a “deportation nation” to once again being a land of welcome and opportunity.

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Virgil Wiebe is director of clinical education and a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas.

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