Change in Laws Sets Off Big Wave of Deportations
By MIRTA OJITO
Published: December 15, 1998
In the two years since Congress passed tough laws to stem the flow of illegal immigration to the United States, Federal authorities have deported almost 300,000 immigrants to countries all over the world, more than twice the number who were sent back in the two years before.
The unprecedented number of deportations has been possible because for the first time the Immigration and Naturalization Service has both the Congressional mandate and the money to investigate and prosecute violators of immigration law, arrest immigrants with criminal convictions and would-be immigrants at the border and swiftly deport them from the United States -- sometimes in less than 12 hours.
Many of the immigrants who are deported are barred from returning to the country for five years or more. Some are barred for life.
''The rules have changed,'' said Kerry Bretz, a Manhattan immigration lawyer and former I.N.S. prosecutor. ''The agency has become completely enforcement-minded.''
Flush with almost a billion dollars earmarked for the detention and deportation of immigrants, the I.N.S. is now the largest Federal law enforcement agency, the Justice Department says. The immigration service has more than 15,000 officers authorized to carry weapons and make arrests, more than the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Prisons, the Customs Service or the Drug Enforcement Administration.
''It is as if, suddenly, war had been declared on immigrants,'' said Maria Jimenez, director of the Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project of the American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit organization in Houston that documents abuses on the United States-Mexico border. ''Stopping immigrants from entering the country has become more important than the war against drugs.''
Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee and one of the architects of the law, said the number of deportations demonstrated that the law was working, though not yet to his satisfaction. The I.N.S., he said, is deporting only a small percentage of those who should be deported. ''The goal is to make sure as many illegal aliens as possible return home,'' he said.
Before the law was changed, most of those deported had been convicted of crimes. Now, the majority do not have criminal records but are caught at the southwest border trying to enter the country with no documents or with fake documents.
But about 78,000 illegal immigrants who were already living in the country were also deported in the last two years. They were arrested during job raids, at routine traffic stops, at airports while returning from abroad and even at immigration offices, where immigrants often go to seek services and sometimes end up under arrest.
Many had lived here for years, working, paying taxes, studying and establishing families. Their deportation often causes a great deal of emotional pain and financial distress to the families left behind.
The family of Fernando Giraldo, one of the people deported last year, is still trying to get him back to New York City, where he lived and worked for almost a decade.
Mr. Giraldo, a 36-year-old amateur poet from Colombia, sneaked into the United States through the southwest border a decade ago. The authorities detained him at the airport in El Paso, Tex., as he was about to board a plane. An immigration judge ordered him to leave the country in 30 days and released him on bond.
But Mr. Giraldo ignored the judge's decision and flew to New York to join his family in Brooklyn. For nine years, he went undetected by the authorities. He worked as a maintenance supervisor in a Manhattan hotel and led what he calls ''a normal, happy life.''
His luck ran out one morning in the summer of 1997. Mr. Giraldo had gone to the downtown Manhattan immigration office for a scheduled interview with an immigration officer, one of the steps in his quest for permanent residency. He said he was sure the meeting would conclude with a handshake and a stamp on his Colombian passport, making him a legal resident of the United States.
Instead, Mr. Giraldo was arrested, handcuffed and sent to a detention center in Jamaica, Queens. Less than 48 hours later, he was on a plane to Bogota. He is now barred from trying to enter the United States for 10 years and, even then, his return is not guaranteed.
''I never even finished breakfast,'' Mr. Giraldo said from his home in Pereira, Colombia. ''I had told my mother that we would have coffee when I returned from the interview and I just never did.''
With Mr. Giraldo's deportation, his mother, Maria Judith Valencia, 63, and his sister, Maritza Giraldo, 22, both permanent residents of the United States, were left to fend for themselves. Ms. Valencia, who suffers from muscle spasms in her eyelids and cannot keep her eyes open without medication, started making pastries at home and selling them. Ms. Giraldo, a senior studying marketing at Baruch College, had to leave school to find a job.
Goal for Deportations Is Set, and Exceeded
Last year, the year Mr. Giraldo was deported, the immigration agency set a deportation goal for the first time -- and surpassed it: 114,285 people were deported in the Federal fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 1997; the goal was 93,000. In fiscal 1998, when $748 million, a record, was budgeted solely for the detention and deportation of undesirable immigrants, 169,072 people were deported. The goal was 127,300.
The money has allowed the agency to triple the number of beds available in detention centers and local jails around the country and increase personnel by 80 percent. The added beds and staff are crucial because the agency must detain immigrants before deporting them.
The increase in funds has also allowed immigration officials to conduct more investigations than it had in the past. Now, the agency can routinely conduct job raids and check on anonymous tips from, say, people who notice a sudden influx of immigrants in their neighborhood. They also have the resources to identify a particular problem in a specific state and try to combat it through deportation.
Just two months ago, I.N.S. agents rounded up more than 500 legal immigrants in Texas who had at least three drunken-driving convictions. Their detention is the first step in a process that could culminate in their deportation. Immigration officials in Washington said no other state had followed Texas' lead, but, by law, they could.
''We apprehend and take into custody more people than any other agency in the world,'' said Russell A. Bergeron Jr., an I.N.S. spokesman in Washington.
The law got tougher for immigrants who had not yet become citizens in 1996, when Congress passed the Illegal Immigration and Reform Responsibility Act. Proponents of the measure argued that illegal immigration was overtaxing public services and potentially taking jobs away from citizens. The act granted the agency wide powers previously afforded only to the courts.
Through a process called expedited removal, for example, the law now allows immigration officials to quickly deport illegal immigrants who show up at airports and at the border. Immigration officials, not judges, determine which of them can be deported and, therefore, barred from the United States for at least five years. The decision can be made in a matter of hours and without a lawyer representing the immigrant.
Before the law changed, immigration officials at the border used to simply send illegal immigrants back without formally deporting them. Undaunted, immigrants tried again and many eventually succeeded at entering the country undetected. Now, any immigrant caught trying to enter the country after having been formally deported can be prosecuted and sentenced to prison.
Making More Crimes Grounds to Deport
The law also expanded the definition of a deportable crime and directed the immigration agency to deport immigrants convicted of crimes even if they were legal residents of the United States. While the agency has always been required to deport murderers and rapists, now people who have forged checks or committed minor sex offenses, like touching a woman inappropriately, are also being deported. In addition, the law took away the power of judges to consider mitigating factors.
In the past, many immigrants who had committed crimes were freed after completing their sentences because there was no place to detain them pending deportation. Now, the law requires -- and the increase in detention beds allows -- such immigrants to remain behind bars while awaiting deportation. More than 106,000 immigrants with criminal convictions were deported in 1998, a 52 percent increase over the previous two years.
Immigration officials say it is too early to know if the high number of deportations is having the intended effect: to send a clear message to would-be immigrants that coming to the country illegally is punishable.
''After so many years of the laws being ineffectual, it is going to take a long time to restore the credibility of the immigration laws,'' Mr. Bergeron said. ''You are not going to have an overnight shift on the way people think.''
Lawyers and advocates for immigrants, though, say the laws have begun to affect the lives of their clients. Detention and deportation of people already living in the United States legally or illegally has become so pervasive that many of these immigrants -- who, unlike those caught at airports or at the border, have the right to hearings and appeals -- are giving up on the legal process and leaving the country on their own.
By doing that -- in essence, deporting themselves -- they may avoid both a formal Federal deportation order and a long stay at a detention center while their cases wind through the courts. Those who are not criminals can also avoid being barred from re-entering the country.
''The law, in practical terms, deprives them of due process,'' said Nancy Morawetz, a professor at New York University School of Law. ''Congress passed these laws without paying really close attention to them. And the results are just awful.''
A Law So Broad, Even The I.N.S. Has Doubts
Even immigration officials say the law is too broad. To detain all the convicted criminals who should, under the law, be behind bars, the I.N.S. will have to receive even more funds from Congress, Mr. Bergeron said. Immigration officials have calculated that the agency would need up to 21,000 additional beds and as many as 1,500 additional employees. To cover those costs, the current budget of about $700 million will have to increase by $652 million.
''We've always said the law went too far,'' Mr. Bergeron said.
Already, some detention centers are dangerously overcrowded, lawyers for immigrants say. Last month, about 80 detainees at the center on Varick Street in Manhattan protested because they were sleeping on mattresses on the floor in a dormitory meant to house only 42.
To avoid such disturbances, Mr. Bergeron said, the agency will have to continue choosing whom to detain and whom to let go. But just how those choices are made is not always obvious to immigrants' relatives.
Pam Gaul, whose adopted son, John Gaul, awaits deportation at a jail in north Florida, said she could not understand why the authorities considered him a dangerous criminal worthy of deportation. Mr. Gaul, 25, was convicted of check fraud and of stealing a car four years ago. Because he was born in Thailand and never became a United States citizen, he is what the law calls a ''criminal alien,'' and, thus, deportable.
Ms. Gaul, 52, and her former husband adopted John when he was 4 and always thought that, because they were citizens, he would be protected by United States law. He is not, the authorities said.
''He made a mistake, but do we punish him for life?'' asked Ms. Gaul, a respiratory therapist at a Tampa hospital. ''Essentially, for me, they are trying to take away his life and they are ripping our family apart.''
Correction: December 19, 1998, Saturday A front-page article on Tuesday about the deportation of immigrants from the United States misstated the period in which 106,000 immigrants with criminal convictions were deported. It was 1997 and 1998, not 1998 alone. As the article said, the figure represented a 52 percent increase from the previous two years.