Ten years ago, says Denver police sergeant Mike Scanlon, officers would pick up and arrest undocumented aliens simply because they were in this country illegally. But those days are long gone. "Now we can't do that," he says. "We're not interested in immigration status and nationalities. We don't have room in the jails for our own crooks, much less them."

Until three or four years ago, Scanlon says, officers rarely encountered illegal aliens engaged in criminal activity. Most tended to keep their heads low and stay out of trouble. But in a climate where even repeat criminal offenders often manage to stay in the U.S., he says, there's an increasing incentive for those who may have committed crimes in Mexico to repeat the practice north of the border.

"I have a policy here in our office," Scanlon continues. "I have the guys notify the INS when we pick them up. I don't know what happens then."

The answer in most cases: not much.

The investigative division of the INS determined it was losing the battle against illegal immigration in 1983. At that point, the federal agency established a system of "case management," placing illegal aliens in three distinct groups, or "impact levels." "You weren't to go to the cases in levels two and three until you'd dealt with the ones at the top," says Scott Robertson. "It was a great idea."

Under the new rules, criminal aliens were placed at the top of the list. Instead of sending agents out to raid farmhouses in search of undocumented agricultural workers, agents were free to concentrate on those aliens who posed the biggest problem: the criminals.

Agents, though, discovered that the criminal category alone was taking up the vast majority of their time. So the INS established further guidelines dividing the lawbreakers according to the perceived threat they presented to public safety. The system created a criminal threshold that illegal aliens have to meet before the INS actively seeks them out and deports them.

In essence, as long as aliens stick to minor assaults or burglaries and don't get involved in guns or drugs, they're not a priority in the eyes of the federal government. "Offenses such as criminal trespass, assault, burglary, things of that sort--they have to meet a couple of different standards for us to classify them as a criminal alien," Robertson says. "Their criminal record has to meet certain standards to rise to this level."

Aliens who are considered serious flight risks or threats to public safety are generally shipped from jail to a federal detention center such as the INS lockup in Aurora. That privatized facility (owned and run by the Wackenhut Corrections Corporation) has 300 beds and is a regional clearinghouse for criminal aliens from as far away as Illinois and Missouri. Immigration hearings are held in a small courtroom inside the Wackenhut building.

On a recent Friday, twenty men are scheduled to appear before immigration judge James Vandello. All but four were born in Mexico. The others came to this country from Jordan, Honduras, Kuwait and Bulgaria. As the morning session begins, a dozen men shuffle into Vandello's courtroom wearing orange jail uniforms with matching sneakers or slippers.

Among the first to be called is Jesus Martinez-Garcia, a 26-year-old Mexican national who is being held without bond. He wants the judge to set a bond that he can afford. Under questioning by Vandello, Martinez-Garcia says his parents and siblings live in the United States. His mother has a green card, and his father is a citizen. He says he's been living in the United States for most of the past decade. Unfortunately for him, five of those years were spent in an Illinois prison, where he served time for attempted murder. The INS deported him as soon as he got out, but here he is, back again.

Vandello reduces the bond to $20,000, but Martinez-Garcia complains that even that amount is beyond his reach. He will probably remain incarcerated until he has exhausted his appeals and is deported again.

Unlike Martinez-Garcia, some criminal aliens are given the chance to leave the United States "voluntarily." In return for promising to go home, the individuals usually avoid jail time; as an added benefit, they won't be tagged for criminal sanctions should they return to this country illegally.

On this day, four men ask to be allowed voluntary departures. If they can come up with the $90 bus fare, Vandello tells them, they might qualify. Otherwise, he might order them deported.

A man named Jose Lopez-Lopez says he can come up with the bus fare and that he'd like to leave voluntarily. But an attorney for the INS objects to the request. Lopez-Lopez, it seems, was arrested during a raid by Denver police on a house on Santa Fe Drive. Inside the home officers found fifty pounds of marijuana and two submachine guns. Lopez-Lopez was charged with drug possession, but those charges were later dropped, the INS attorney says, because it was determined that the search had been conducted without proper consent.

Although Lopez-Lopez says he knows nothing about the drugs and guns, his case is delayed until the government attorney can produce witnesses. If the INS can make its case, Lopez-Lopez will likely be deported. If it can't, chances are he will be allowed a voluntary departure.

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