Detainees at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, putting together a puzzle on Thursday, April 19, 2012. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Thousands of criminals released from immigration detention

The government has released people with criminal convictions from immigration detention centers in Georgia more than 5,300 times since 2011, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of records obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Many had been convicted of traffic offenses, including driving under the influence. Others served time for more serious charges, such as assault, rape and homicide.

Most of the releases — 3,018 — involved people freed from the Stewart Detention Center, a sprawling complex two hours south of Atlanta. More than 1,000 of the releases happened in Atlanta. Nearly 700 took place in Gainesville, where the local immigration detention center is now closed. And a smaller number were freed from the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla in South Georgia.

Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump and other critics of illegal immigration say such criminals should be deported immediately. But it’s not that simple.

Those who were set free had already completed their criminal sentences and cannot be detained indefinitely, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They were released for a number of reasons, according to ICE, including to comply with federal court rulings or bond decisions made by immigration judges or because their native countries won’t cooperate in repatriating them. ICE added they eventually could still be deported if they haven’t already been removed.

ICE’s records reflect only releases from October of 2011 to December of 2014 and do not identify individuals, some of whom may be counted more than once because they have been released multiple times. The records also do not identify why each of them was released, their current whereabouts, the crimes they committed or how the government is keeping track of those still in the U.S. ICE routinely requires people who are not being detained to wear electronic monitoring bracelets and periodically check in with authorities.

The AJC asked ICE for the records in February of last year while reporting on the secrecy surrounding the releases and how some who are set free go on to commit more crimes. ICE responded with the records this year. Some highlights:

• Just over half of the 105,632 releases involved Mexicans. El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are the native countries for the second, third and fourth largest groups, respectively.

• Nationally, the largest share of convictions – nearly 40 percent — involved traffic offenses, including driving under the influence. There were also 10,731 convictions for assault; 890 for sexual assault, including rape; 473 for homicide-related offenses; and 375 for kidnapping.

• The largest number of releases from a single detention center – 3,712 — happened at the Adelanto Detention Facility northeast of Los Angeles. The South Texas Detention Complex located southwest of San Antonio had the second largest number at 3,390.

Stewart County Sheriff Larry Jones said he wasn’t aware so many people with criminal convictions had been released from the ICE detention center in Lumpkin, a small city in the heart of his rural county. But he said he hasn’t had trouble with them, probably because they immediately left his isolated part of the state and returned to where they lived before they were detained.

“For the most part, the ones they have out there are mostly from other areas of the state,” he said. “We really don’t have a whole lot of illegals in this area. So it really wouldn’t immediately affect this area.”

In response to questions about the data, ICE provided additional statistics, showing the government is releasing substantially fewer people with criminal convictions. During the fiscal year ending in September, the government set free 19,723, a nearly 36 percent drop from the year before when 30,558 were allowed to walk out of immigration detention centers.

More than half were released last fiscal year under orders from immigration judges, some of whom granted them bond, according to ICE. Some with serious medical conditions were freed for humanitarian reasons, the agency said. Just over 2,100 were released in compliance with a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibits ICE from indefinitely detaining people who cannot be deported.

The sharp drop in releases follows ICE’s announcement last year that it would give convicts more scrutiny before deciding to release them from custody. Specifically, the agency said it would start requiring approval from top officials in ICE field offices before releasing people with convictions for two or more felonies or any single aggravated felony. Further, ICE said it would no longer cite a shortage of detention space as the determining factor for releasing people with serious criminal records.

“The lower number of criminals aliens released in fiscal year 2015 can be credited in part to enhanced oversight for custody determinations announced early in 2015, which include stepped-up internal review of such decisions and additional monitoring of criminal aliens released,” ICE said in a prepared statement.

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, said ICE is making progress.

“These numbers do indicate that some policy changes that they have implemented may be having an effect,” said Vaughan, whose center advocates for tighter immigration controls. “And that is a good thing. I do think that part of the decline is a result of fewer arrests being made to begin with.”

Citing a letter ICE sent Congress in February, Vaughan pointed out that 124 criminals were charged with homicide-related crimes after they were released from immigration detention centers between fiscal years 2010 and 2014. The same letter says the government has released the same 156 criminals at least twice from immigration detention centers since fiscal year 2013, including two who were set free in Georgia.

Vaughan pointed to another letter from ICE to Congress in February that provides an updated list of 23 “recalcitrant” countries, or ones that have been uncooperative in accepting the return of their citizens. The list includes: Afghanistan, China, Cuba, India, Iran, Iraq, Libya and South Sudan. ICE said it and the U.S. State Department have been working to improve cooperation with those nations, resulting in some progress.

Carolina Antonini, a local immigration attorney who teaches law at Georgia State University, said it makes sense to release some people from detention when they do not endanger public safety, aren’t a flight risk and need expensive medical care that could cost taxpayers. Plus, Antonini added, federal immigration authorities have limited powers.

“Obviously, we are a country of laws and we have a Constitution,” she said. “You cannot detain people indefinitely.”

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