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Posted January 13, 2008
                     
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Deportees With No Criminal Past Grow  
                             
Advocates alarmed by trend in region
                        

By MARIA SACCHETTI

Globe Staff

Federal immigration agents in New England are deporting a smaller percentage of immigrants who have been convicted of crimes than in 2005, drawing criticism from immigrant advocates who say the agency is "chasing landscapers" and other workers who do not have criminal records.

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Officials for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement say their policy is to pursue criminals, from violent gang members to fake document peddlers to child predators, and they assert there are valid reasons that deportations might not reflect that. The criminals they pursue include legal residents, immigrants here illegally (a civil offense), and even US citizens.

But advocates and others say deportations should reflect the agency's mission.

According to the immigration agency, about 35 percent - or 916 people - of the 2,609 deported from New England to their home countries during the last budget year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, had been convicted of criminal charges.

Two years ago, 45 percent of the 2,482 deportees had convictions.

The regional trend mirrors national percentages: Across the country, the percentage of criminal deportees fell to 38 percent last year from 48 percent in 2005, largely because of a dramatic increase in the number of noncriminal deportations. The figures from the immigration agency do not specify which of the criminal deportees were in the country illegally and which were legal residents stripped of their status because of a conviction.

Bruce Foucart, special agent in charge of the agency's office of investigations in Boston, which covers New England, said the immigration agency has not shifted its focus - which is still fighting crime - and rebutted allegations that the agency targets immigrants indiscriminately.

But he said deportations could not be expected to increase every year, partly because they are often subject to court decisions.

It can take years to deport someone; some criminals are still serving jail sentences or are awaiting trial, and others are fighting deportation in court. Some accused criminals do not show up in the statistics because they are deported before their cases go to trial.

Sometimes illegal immigrants are arrested as part of a criminal investigation, and then are not charged with any crimes, which can skew deportation figures, he said.

The massive raid last March at a New Bedford leather-goods factory, which made backpacks and other gear for the US military, was an example, he said.

Agents detained 361 people because they were here illegally.

But only the company's president at the time and two managers have been indicted on federal charges.

"These numbers are not indicative on what our priorities are," Foucart said. "Our priorities are still on criminal work, criminal investigations, criminal aliens, and criminal US citizens."

The decline in percentage of criminal deportees is emerging as the number of overall deportees is rising sharply nationwide - to 232,755 last year from 177,489 in 2005.

In New England, the overall deportations were relatively flat, 2,609, up 127 from two years ago.

Advocates for immigrants said the deportation figures were dismaying because they suggest that many noncriminals are being swept up in raids.

Because federal agents generally refuse to release detainees' names, citing Department of Homeland Security Policy, it is difficult to verify whether detainees are criminals.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said the numbers suggest that federal agents are "chasing landscapers" and not cracking down on crime.

"Every time they do a raid they're saying, "Oh, we're just going after criminals,' " Noorani said.

"The numbers prove that Immigration is really just going through neighborhoods and looking for anybody who fits their profile. I just look at it as a real waste of taxpayer dollars."

Even those who favor stricter controls on immigration said the decline in the share of deportees who are criminals is perplexing.

Jessica Vaughan, a senior policy analyst with the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which favors limits on immigration, said it is possible that many detainees are still serving time and will eventually be deported.

But she called the lower percentages of criminal deportees surprising because the federal agency has more resources to catch criminals and because many police departments nationwide have volunteered to help.

"Congress has provided ICE with more resources specifically to focus on criminal illegal aliens, and these numbers don't show any results yet," said Vaughan, who is based in Franklin.

"You have to ask yourself, is ICE really using these resources effectively or is there more they could be doing?"

Jim Rizoli, director of Massachusetts Concerned Citizens and Friends of Illegal Immigration Law Enforcement, said the numbers would be higher in New England if more police departments agreed to help the federal agency. Only two police departments in the region, Framingham and Hudson, N.H., plus the Barnstable County Sheriff's Office and Massachusetts Department of Correction, have volunteered to flag criminal immigrants for the federal agency.

"It concerns me," Rizoli said. "I think [criminal deportations] should be higher."

Chelsea's police chief, Brian A. Kyes, said he would be concerned if noncriminal immigrants were being swept up in raids aimed at cracking down on violent crime. His department participated in immigration raids in August to combat street gangs, and he said he was sure that most of those detained in his city were involved in criminal activity.

But Kyes said the police department's relationship with residents could become strained if federal agents were rounding up hardworking people here illegally. At least 36 percent of Chelsea's residents are immigrants, most from Latin America.

"That would concern me because of the trust that we need to develop between the residents of our community and the police in order to accomplish our joint goals of keeping the community safe," said Kyes.

"It would have the potential to cause the trusting relationship with the police to become adversarial."

Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company. 2008 NY Times Co. Reprinted from The Boston Globe of Saturday, January 12, 2008.

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