Aliens taxing the limits of U.S. prison system Deportation awaits many upon release

June 21, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer Allison Morse contributed to this article.

OAKDALE, La. -- At the federal corrections complex in this central Louisiana backwater, the parade of nations rivals any Olympic ceremony. Inmates from 72 countries finish their time here for a host of criminal offenses and await America's final farewell -- deportation.

There's the Colombian who was convicted in a cocaine ring that operated on an upstate New York dairy farm. The Israeli, a heroin salesman, who, if deported, won't readily be able to return to the United States to see his American daughter. The Antiguan with a steady job as a mechanic who was convicted of trafficking in altered auto parts.

Some entered the country illegally. Others arrived as students or tourists. And many lived in the United States for decades as permanent legal aliens. But their troubles with the law have made aliens an increasing presence in U.S. prisons and an added pressure on an overtaxed immigration service.

In the federal prison system alone, foreign-born inmates who are not U.S. citizens account for 26 percent of the estimated population of more than 78,000. That statistic prompted U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to ask last month whether the United States should house these prisoners and if there was a better way to ease the burden on an already overloaded criminal justice system.

Undocumented criminal aliens also are putting a strain on state prison populations. California has lobbied Congress for millions of dollars the state says the federal government should pay for housing such inmates. And New York went to court last year to try and force the government to take 3,379 illegal aliens off its hands.

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials attribute the increase in crimes committed by aliens to the explosion of drug activity in this country in the past decade and federal mandatory sentencing policies designed to try to curb it. For aliens, criminal conviction opens the door to deportation proceedings, which can take anywhere from weeks to months. Longer, if aliens fight to remain in this country.

With more and more immigrants trying to enter the country illegally -- the efforts to smuggle Chinese through New York and San Francisco are recent dramatic examples -- and others seeking refuge here, the immigration service is overrun by a backlog of 260,000 political asylum cases. At least initially, those immigrants, like the smuggled Chinese, need to be detained.

Couple that with deportable criminal aliens and housing the waiting immigrants becomes a serious national concern.

"Space is so precious," says John B. Z. Caplinger, director of the New Orleans district of the INS, "even the [federal] marshals handling [criminal aliens] in the trial proceedings are moving them as soon as conviction into a prison."

Seeking answers to crowding

The state of New York, with overcrowded prisons, says it spends more than $65 million a year to house and supervise undocumented criminal aliens who have served their minimum sentences and should be in the custody of the immigration service. Under federal law, an alien convicted of a violent or drug-related crime is subject to deportation.

"Federal law makes the government responsible for taking certain classes of alien felons and the federal government is refusing to do so," says James B. Flateau, a New York prison system spokesman.

Advocates and some immigration lawyers say minimum mandatory sentences exacerbate the problem because the policies prevent deal-making in which an alien -- especially a low-level drug offender -- could agree to be deported in exchange for a lesser sentence.

"Why should we pay for them to be in jail here when all we're going to do when they get out is deport then?" asked Denyse Sabagh, an immigration lawyer in Washington.

To do anything other than that would be to create a two-tiered system of justice, says Duke Austin, an INS spokesman. "Jail for one, a ticket home for another. That doesn't make sense to any law enforcement agency that I'm aware of."

Mr. Caplinger said the INS is considering proposals to expand a program in New York in which a criminal alien who pleads guilty and agrees to be deported will be sent home immediately. If he returns to the states and is caught, he will serve the time for his original crime plus an additional 15-year federal sentence.

In 1987, the Executive Office of Immigration Review, an arm of the Justice Department, began holding deportation proceedings within federal and state prisons in an effort to conclude a case by the time a criminal alien completes his sentence.

Some criminal aliens, however, finish their prison terms before immigration officials can catch up to them. Others slip through the cracks and escape INS attention. A fortunate few await deportation proceedings at home with their families, if an immigration judge sets a bond they can afford. Others wait it out in local jails -- at an average daily cost of $75 to the immigration service -- or at an INS detention center.

The wait at Oakdale

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