The news last week that federal authorities had to release 2,837 convicted sex offenders back onto the streets has renewed focus on a Supreme Court case that requires the government to release immigrants whose home countries won’t take them back.
A report released last week by the Government Accountability Office said the nearly 3,000 sex offenders are part of the 59,347 immigrants who the courts have ruled cannot be held, whom the U.S. has been unable to send home, and who instead were released under some sort of supervision as of September 2012.
The GAO took a sample of the sex offender cases and concluded that about 5 percent of the time U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t ensure that the immigrants released were properly registered with local authorities as sex offenders.
“I’m surprised that only 5 percent of them are not properly registered,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies.
She said ICE isn’t particularly rigorous about monitoring many of those it releases.
Following on news this year that ICE released a number of immigrants from custody and blamed automatic budget cuts, the latest report again highlights a thorny part of the immigration system.
In this case, the sex offenders and other immigrants — legal and illegal — who have been released are thanks to a 2001 Supreme Court ruling in what is known as the Zadvydas case. The court ruled 5-4 that detention for immigration purposes can’t be punitive; therefore, if there isn’t a likelihood someone can be deported, they generally have to be released.
That matters because many countries delay documents to make it more difficult for U.S. deportation. The worst is Qatar, which takes an average of 800 days to issue the necessary deportation documents, according to ICE numbers that Ms. Vaughan obtained. That is followed by Cambodia at 522 days and Vietnam at 368 days.
Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said the GAO report highlights how the system is supposed to work: Once illegal immigrants are released, they are supposed to be under supervision, and ICE is supposed to make sure the sex offenders register with authorities according to state and local laws.
“The GAO report is focusing on the more important thing, which is that it’s the criminal justice system that’s responsible for these people and ICE should be cooperating with the criminal justice system,” Ms. Rabinovitz said.
ICE regularly faces criticism from both sides of the immigration issue.
Advocates for strict enforcement want the agency to do more to detain dangerous immigrants it is trying to deport, and to do a better job of tracking those it doesn’t detain to make sure they don’t disappear into the country. But immigrant rights advocates said too many people are being detained and often are held in poor conditions, far from their families.
Under existing law, once another country refuses to accept its people for repatriation, the government is supposed to begin refusing to issue travel visas for citizens of that country to visit the U.S.
Ms. Vaughan said that can be a devastatingly effective tool, but administrations of both parties had refused to use it.
“When you start denying student visas — any narrow category that you want, that hits people in the ruling elite in that other country — they start paying attention,” Ms. Vaughan said. “That is the best leverage we have with people in other countries, is visas, because they all want to come here, go to school here, go to Vegas, Disney World, whatever.”
But Ms. Vaughan said the Department of Homeland Security hasn’t been proactive in pushing the visa retaliation.
A Homeland Security spokesman didn’t return a request seeking comment.
The massive immigration bill that passed the Senate this year waters down the visa penalty law, giving wide latitude to Homeland Security and the State Department to determine whether another country is being recalcitrant.
House Republicans are looking at a more concrete solution.
One of their immigration bills, which cleared the Judiciary Committee this year, would give the Homeland Security secretary the power to indefinitely order the detention of immigrants who are deemed to be public safety threats. That bill could come to the House floor this year if Republicans move ahead with an immigration debate.
The bill mirrors an approach championed by Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, in the previous Congress.
Ms. Rabinovitz at the ACLU said giving ICE permanent detention powers could be unconstitutional and is certainly misguided. She said the agency should be trying to figure out ways to reduce the population of detainees.
“It’s just stupid,” she said. “We’re talking about a situation where we’re spending so much money on detention, we’re in a period of fiscal straits where we should be concerned about spending our money. To lock up people who aren’t a flight risk doesn’t make sense. All we’re saying is provide them with a bond hearing.”