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Foreign-born inmates slip through ICE net
Dozens of felons in city jail without deportation holds

By Ann Imse And Lou Kilzer, Rocky Mountain News
June 11, 2005

Foreign-born criminals who are supposed to be a prime target for federal immigration agents are instead slipping through the deportation net, an examination of Denver jail and Colorado court records shows.

The Rocky Mountain News looked at the records of inmates in the Denver County Jail May 17.

On that day, a Tuesday, federal immigration agents had ordered 35 of the inmates held for possible deportation, but there were no deportation holds on at least 94 other foreign-born inmates being held for major felonies.

Agents had placed detainers on two inmates listed on the roster as accused of murder and three being held for sexual assault. That meant they'd be turned over to immigration for deportation hearings in a federal immigration court after they were released or served their time on any criminal convictions.

But many foreign-born inmates had no deportation detainers, including at least three being held on murder charges, four on sexual assault charges, five on charges of sexual assault on a child, and dozens more charged in major crimes including assault, kidnapping and drug trafficking.

After the News brought the names of these inmates to the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, the agency placed immigration holds on nine of the 12 listed in jail records with murder or sexual assault charges, according to jail records. At least one of the remaining three turned out to be a U.S. citizen.

The jail officials could not check the rest of the 94 for new immigration holds on Friday for lack of time.

ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said agents review the files of everyone on the list of "foreign born" that a detention facility provides.

Rusnok said some of the 94 from May 17 were U.S. citizens and not under ICE purview, but he declined to say how many.

The News' look at immigration practices at the Denver County Jail found:

• At least five of the inmates who were under ICE hold had histories of deportable felonies that had not been caught by immigration agents previously.

• Illegal immigrant defendants released on bail often escape the notice of immigration agents, said public defender Christine Antoun. Her office doesn't see a pattern in which clients are detained by immigration. "It appears to be random," she said.

• Denver's pre-trial services department must make recommendations on the release of suspects on bail, while they await trial, without knowing whether they are illegal immigrants likely to flee. That's because about 18 months ago, immigration agents stopped telling the Denver pre-trial services department if newly arrested suspects were in the country illegally, said department chief Virgil Robinson.

• ICE deliberately waits to file immigration detainers on jail inmates until they have been sentenced. That could result in some illegal immigrant inmates being freed on bond, having their cases dismissed or being sentenced to time served and leaving jail before ICE responds.

• Even when criminal illegal immigrants are deported, they often quickly return, to be arrested again by Denver police.

"People come back and forth all the time," said Lynn Kimbrough, spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney's Office. "They're deported in June, they're back in August. They're deported again in September. They're back in November."

'Worst of the worst'

ICE's record on deporting illegal aliens who commit crimes has been a topic of heated public debate in Denver for the past month, since undocumented immigrant Raul Gomez-Garcia was accused of gunning down two police officers, killing Detective Donald Young.

Gomez-Garcia was arrested June 4 in Mexico.

Because most information on the federal government's handling of specific cases involving illegal immigrants is secret, it's exceedingly difficult to obtain clear-cut statistics on how many criminals here illegally and being held at the Denver jail are missed by federal agents.

Denver ICE supervisory agent Tony Rouco said agents focus "on the worst of the worst - the aggravated felon."

Federal law stipulates that even legal immigrants are to be deported on conviction of aggravated felonies. Only full citizenship prevents removal from the country.

No federal agency would tell the News if an individual is a citizen, citing privacy.

The Denver jail doesn't know if an inmate is in the country illegally unless there is an ICE hold.

Rusnok, the ICE spokesman, said some criminal illegals do not have ICE detainers "because we are awaiting trial, conviction and sentencing phases." He said that for inmates sentenced and serving time, ICE would wait until a few months before their release dates before placing detainers.

Agents ordering a detainer consider whether the immigrant is, in fact, illegal and the seriousness of his current charges and previous convictions, Rusnok said. But there are also practical considerations, including whether ICE has the manpower to handle the case and enough funding to house that inmate in an immigration lockup, he said.

Rusnok said that on a recent day, for example, agents found 25 foreign-born inmates that it had not previously interviewed. "Only 15 were deemed eligible for deportation," and detainers were placed on all 15, he said.

Rusnok said agency policy bars him from discussing specific cases. Immigration court records are also secret, unless the federal alien number for the individual involved is known.

Alert probation officer

The News' examination of some of the worst cases from May 17 showed:

• Ramon Urbina was sentenced to six years for dealing drugs in January 1996, records say. But instead of serving the prison time first, immigration court ordered him deported on June 14.

If he was actually expelled, he quickly returned.

Denver police arrested him again in October 1997. In 1998, he was sent back to prison on another felony for three years, and once again, records say immigration slapped a hold on him. But he never again made it to immigration court.

In February 2000, Denver police arrested him for drug trafficking, and he went back to prison on a parole violation. He was arrested for drug dealing earlier this year, has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. For the third time, immigration has a detainer on him.

• Juan Flores-Lopez is in jail accused of sexual assault on a child, with three victims. He was arrested in December but ICE did not place a detainer on him - or six other sex crime defendants - until the News inquired about his status.

• Arturo Martinez, an inmate with 12 aliases and three prior felony drug convictions that could have kicked him out of the country, was convicted of assaulting his pregnant girlfriend March 14. But immigration did not place a hold on him until March 22 - the same day he was released to probation, according to jail records.

An alert probation officer found Martinez had an outstanding warrant on another state criminal charge and sent him back to jail for a court appearance May 19. This time ICE nabbed him, and deported him.

• Martin Amaro-Moreno, a man with a long arrest record for assault, theft and property destruction, was ordered deported May 11, 1999, according to immigration court records.

But this is a case where even if immigration agents did the right thing, it didn't work. Amaro-Moreno was back in Denver by late 2000. He allegedly sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl here the next year.

In May 2002, he was caught in Texas and sentenced to three years in federal prison for returning after deportation. He was released this January and brought back to Denver to face the sexual assault charges, and now has an immigration detainer.

ICE agents face tough task

Sorting out the records isn't easy, even for federal agents. It is made more difficult by the proliferation of false identities. The News found three inmates with 12 aliases each. Some have common names.

Immigration court, for example, had 24 Arturo Martinezes in its files and could not sort out which one was in the Denver Jail.

"It is nuts," says Karen Salas, spokeswoman for state probation. "We try to cross-reference by name, birthdate, Social Security number. But then illegals usually have erroneous Social Security numbers, so they don't match."

Jeff Copp, ICE's special agent in charge in the Denver district, said his four agents assigned to the 19 jails in the metro area are hard pressed.

He said his office frequently does not place holds on those yet to be convicted because once a hold is placed on a suspect, local jurisdictions frequently drop charges. "And that doesn't do us any good," he said.

Though Copp was speaking about the four-state region his office serves, "that is absolutely not true in Denver," said Kimbrough of the district attorney's office.

"If we believe we can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, we proceed regardless of whether they're here illegally," she said.

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey said federal agents cut back on deporting felons without prison sentences when they were assigned to look for terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"They were deporting a lot of people. Then 9/11 happens. They stop deporting people," he said. "They are very understaffed."

There's nothing Denver can do about it, he said. "Certainly, I can't deport them. The mayor can't deport anybody. The governor can't deport anybody."

After Detective Young's slaying, U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Littleton, said suspect Gomez-Garcia should have been brought to the attention of immigration officials because he had received three traffic citations.

But immigration officials have said they do not have the staff to deport traffic offenders.

Immigration attorney Jeff Joseph raises another question: Are the ICE jails so full of minor offenders that there's no room for the serious criminals?

ICE's own statistics show that criminals are only about half of the not quite 4,000 immigrants it expels annually from the region, though the percentage has risen from 43 percent to 53 percent in two years.

"They will tell you, 'We're really concerned about the bad guys,' " Joseph said. But "the people I see in the (ICE) detention center on a daily basis are not hardened criminals."

Instead they were arrested for drunken driving or overstaying their visas, he said.

"Not only are they missing the worst guys, they are detaining the least offensive people. They are detaining women and children and asylum seekers without bond," Joseph said. "And letting murderers go."