6:17pm | November 16, 2009

I-Team: Illegals Caught, Released And Disappear Again
Sheriff Says I-Team Findings Prove Government Order Backfiring
Reported By Jeremy Finley

POSTED: 5:53 pm CST November 12, 2009
UPDATED: 5:18 pm CST November 16, 2009

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A Channel 4 I-Team investigation has found 1,231 illegal immigrants on the run after they had already been found by the government or arrested by police.

The 1,231 illegal immigrants, found in the mid-south between April 2007 and August 2009, were initially identified as being in the country illegally, were released and then vanished, the I-Team discovered.

Records obtained by the I-Team from the Executive Office for Immigration Review show between April 16, 2007, to Aug. 26, 2009, 1,231 illegal immigrants failed to show up for court to appear before an immigration judge and could not be found.

Davidson County Sheriff Darron Hall believes many of the 1,231 were released due to an mandate by the Department of Homeland Security to local sheriff's departments. That order states illegal immigrants charged with minor offenses and without criminal history should be released on recognizance.

Released on recognizance means they get out of jail, without a bond, on the promise that they will appear before an immigration judge, a process that requires them to travel to Memphis. It can take up to six months after their arrest to appear in court.

Hall believes that gives them plenty of time to vanish.

"Why in the world would the government not see that as a setup for failure?" Hall said.

Hall also said in June that he received an e-mail from Homeland Security that directed him to release even more illegal immigrants on recognizance if they were arrested on misdemeanor charges, as long as they didn't have a lengthy criminal history.

The sheriff believes many released on recognizance from Davidson County feared they would be deported and simply never made the 212-mile trek from Nashville to Memphis. Illegal immigrants from Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee are all sent to Memphis for federal immigration court.

Often times, Hall said, it can take up to six months from the time an illegal is arrested to get a court date in Memphis.

"At least 1,200 in two years, just gone. Vanished. Many of them, you caught. What does that tell you?" I-Team reporter Jeremy Finley asked Hall.

"It tells me we're picking up sand with a fork," Hall said.

A spokesman for Immigration Customs Enforcement, a component of the Department of Homeland Security, said the federal government hasn't determined how many of the 1,231 illegal immigrants were released on recognizance. He said illegal immigrants can be brought before a judge for several reasons, including asylum referrals and citizenship and immigration services benefit denials.

The spokesman also said they will not release illegal immigrants on recognizance if they commit felony offenses or have a lengthy criminal history.

Read the full Immigrant Customs Enforcement's statement here.

The I-Team filed several Freedom of Information Act requests to determine who the 1,231 illegal immigrants were, how many federal agents had searched for and how many were released on recognizance.

But agencies within the Department of Homeland Security would not release the names of the 1,231 and said the data wasn't available to determine how many were being sought or why they were brought to an immigration judge.

Hall has no idea how many of those once booked in his jail are now on the run.

The sheriff said in the e-mail he received in June from DHS that the reason for releasing illegal immigrants on recognizance was for budget reasons.

Read DHS' e-mail here.

Hall said because the federal government has to pay his department to house illegal immigrants, the fewer illegal immigrants are in jail, the less the government has to pay.

"It's telling the American people: when we catch an illegal, if he hasn't committed a heinous crime, then we're gonna let him back in your country," said radio host T.J. Graham, who has led several rallies against illegal immigration.

"You can't blame them," said Graham, referring to illegal immigrants. "If someone is going to let you out of jail, and you're not from this country, what would you do?"

Hall is also concerned about the potential for illegal immigrants who commit minor crime to also commit major crimes. He pointed to cases such as Gustavo Garcia Reyes, an illegal alien whom the government failed to recognize as illegal. Reyes was arrested several times in Nashville for minor crimes, was let out of jail, got drunk and was convicted of causing a fatal accident.

That case helped launch the sheriff's 287g program, which seeks to identify dangerous illegal immigrants. Hall fears if other illegals commit minor offenses, are released on recognizance and then commit violent crimes, the public won't stand for it.

"When we have another crime committed by someone who was released on recognizance, (commits a crime) in a serious way, it usually brings attention to all of us. (People will say,) 'Wait a minute? You had him? You released him?'" said Hall.

But attorney Sean Lewis, who represents many illegal immigrants, said it's unfair to generalize all illegal immigrants. He said most of his clients are good people who want to go to immigration court but distrust the legal system. Lewis said he's only had one illegal immigrant client vanish on him in his career.

But Lewis said the 1,231 illegal immigrants who vanished were likely released on recognizance and didn't seek legal help.

"I think it shows it (released on recognizance) isn't working," Lewis said.