Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Nabbed: Now what? A Look at How Illegal Immigrants are Processed

Nabbed: Now what?
A Look at How Illegal Immigrants are Processed
By Ryan Poulos

Last Friday an East El Paso church, Templo de Alabanza, was the setting of a massive rally – part of a 17-city tour of the United States dedicated to immigration reform.

In front of an audience of 1,500, including U.S. Rep. Luis Guiterrez (D-Chicago) and U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-El Paso), immigrant families testified how current immigration policy and deportations tear apart families in border cities.

The event put a human face on an old issue and brought to mind a process that many of us know only through TV news footage and crime-show dramas: the apprehension and deportation of illegal immigrants.

While facts aren't always easy to pin down, some estimates show that more than 20 million illegal immigrants are currently in the United States. All face the possibility of capture; Border Patrol agents in El Paso apprehended more than 30,000 people last year.

But what really happens to an illegal immigrant when he or she is caught? What's Up took a closer look at the process and its variations depending on who's doing the nabbing, where and how.

"If caught, charges can actually go from an administrative charge with no criminal penalty, to a misdemeanor and on up to a felony," said El Paso Border Patrol spokesperson Jose Romero.

Any number of agencies can be involved in the arrest of an illegal immigrant, but the two major agencies – U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – each have their own directives.

Border Patrol agents arrest illegal aliens between the ports of entry, such as makeshift river crossings or breaches of border fencing, where they can enter without inspection.

ICE agents, on the other hand, encounter and arrest illegal immigrants in the course of their own investigations and special operations.

The main differences in the process depend on where the immigrant is nabbed – either crossing the border, or already living and working in the U.S.

Caught Crossing
Each year the Border Patrol apprehends more than 1 million aliens as they attempt to cross the border into the U.S from either Canada or Mexico, according to officials.

Normally, illegal immigrants caught by the Border Patrol are eligible for "voluntary departure," which means they are put on a bus once they pass a criminal background check and returned to Mexico without charges.

When an area sees a steep increase or excessive illegal immigration problems, however, the Border Patrol sets up a designated "no tolerance" zone. Illegal immigrants caught there can be sent to federal court for misdemeanor charges of entry without inspection and then face a trial and deportation. They could face felony charges and jail time if they are caught trying to cross a second time.

The maximum penalty is six months in jail and removal from the U.S. Those convicted are then barred from legal reentry for five years and 20 years for a second removal.

Officials credited no tolerance zones in Yuma, Ariz., and Laredo, Texas, for dropping the total number of apprehensions 60-70 percent in each city last year.

El Paso, too, experienced a precipitous decline in apprehensions in the last three years – from 122,245 (2006) to 75,464 (2007) to 30,312 (2008) – thanks to no tolerance zones and better training for agents, said El Paso Border Patrol spokesperson Jose Romero.

"We do currently have zero tolerance zones throughout El Paso in which anyone caught crossing illegally into the United States will be formally removed from this country and be seen by an immigration judge," he said.

Ramos said the Border Patrol does not keep track of return rates for illegal immigrants or seasonal shifts in immigration patterns.

Border Patrol agents must adhere to a number of rules, a protocol, upon catching someone illegally crossing into the country.

Most are transported by vehicles to a processing center for identification and classification. There they are read their rights, which are similar to the Miranda rights read to U.S. citizens.

They are notified of their right to an attorney, to remain silent and are asked if they understand their rights as explained, Ramos said.

When detaining an alleged illegal immigrant onsite, Border Patrol agents are limited in what they can do, he added..

First, agents search immigrants for weapons or contraband and determine any need for medical assistance.

Next, agents conduct field questioning about the detainee's citizenship and/or right to enter or stay in the country, determine immigrant status, provide them with their rights and then take them into custody.

Caught Living
Workplace investigations are a main source of apprehensions when it comes to illegal immigrants already living and working in the United States, says ICE public affairs officer Leticia Zamarripa.

"ICE special agents encounter illegal aliens in the course of their investigations and enforcement actions, such as worksite enforcement operations," she said. "ICE Fugitive Operations Team members also remove illegal aliens who have either opted not to attend their hearings before an immigration judge, or those who have received a final order of removal and have ignored it and remain in the country."

At that point, she said some illegal aliens are housed at ICE detention centers or detention facilities that contract with the government to house illegal aliens while others receive notices to appear at a later date in immigration court.

(When this reporter asked if housing illegal immigrants together in detention centers hurts immigration efforts, since detainees might be able to network and trade ideas, ICE's public information office replied "no.")

Whether an immigrant will be sent to a detention center or asked to appear later is determined on a case-by-case basis, according to ICE, and the agency must follow similar protocol to the Border Patrol in providing illegal immigrants with their rights.

The overall processing time of an illegal immigrant also varies widely on a case-by-case basis, Zamarripa said.

"There are several factors involved," she said. "Many illegal aliens fight deportation, and that lengthens the removal process. Still others receive their final orders of removal, but remain in detention until their countries of origin issue them travel documents."

If the country is Mexico, the illegal immigrant is eventually released to Mexican immigration authorities on the other side of the border, where they are most often released back into the general populace.

If an illegal immigrant has committed a crime in the U.S., then the process is similar, but that immigrant could face a trial and longer jail time before being eventually deported.

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Peter S. Lopez aka: Peta

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