CROSSING THE LINE

HOW ILLEGAL ALIENS WITH CRIMINAL RECORDS COME OVER THE RIVER--AND THROUGH THE CRACKS.AMERICA OR BUST ILLEGAL ALIENS CAN COMMIT BURGLARIES, THEFTS AND ASSAULTS IN DENVER--AND HAVE LITTLE TO FEAR FROM THE INS.

At the end of the morning's session, the judge orders five men deported, including a robber, a forger and a drug dealer. One other will be allowed to depart voluntarily. The remainder will be held pending future hearings or until they are able to post bond.

Of course, getting aliens who are already in custody to show up for immigration hearings is a cinch. But the INS doesn't have room in its facilities for hundreds of others who've been arrested. Many of those people are ordered to appear for an immigration hearing but simply don't show, even though the INS sets high bonds on those considered flight risks. Immigration judges do have the option of ordering people deported "in absentia," but that often proves to be a symbolic gesture. The INS mails letters to aliens deported in absentia, ordering them to show up in court with their bags packed and ready to leave the country. "In the past," Robertson says, "we referred to that as a `run letter.' Because as soon as they'd get it, they'd take off."

And some aliens never get the "run letter" at all. The INS depends on aliens it's keeping tabs on to send in a change-of-address form every time they move.

Bob Firth is one of two INS agents assigned to Denver's city jail. His job is to screen new arrivals, searching for suspected illegals. He and his partner question the inmates, take down information for a sketchy, personal biography and document it. If need be, they can place an INS "hold" on the inmate, meaning that when the courts are through, the agency will get a crack at him.

But the agents' reach is limited--for now, they've been told to interview and process only illegal aliens arrested on drug charges. Even with that narrow restriction, says Scott Robertson, the two agents are kept so busy "they're tearing their hair out."

"On occasion," Firth says, "we have interviewed inmates who are here on charges other than drugs. Sometimes a police officer asks me as a favor to please do something, because they've arrested this person over and over. I explain to them that [the alien] will probably just get a bus ride back to Mexico, but that that won't keep them from coming back up.

"There are people we've deported six, seven, eight times," he continues. "We can send them back, but we can't keep them out of the country. We call them revolving-door deportees."

The inmates that Firth and his fellow INS agent don't get around to interviewing generally fall into two categories. Inmates who are convicted of felonies and sent to a state prison will be documented by INS agents at the Department of Corrections and ordered deported when their terms are up. But the remainder--those who are acquitted or convicted of lesser crimes--often escape the government's clutches altogether.

Firth typically arrives at the jail early in the morning, before the inmates meet with a judge, post bond and disappear. The first order of business is to scan the list of new arrivals, eyeballing the roster for foreign-sounding names.

One recent Sunday, the list of felons arrested the day before contains thirteen names. Firth runs his finger runs down the sheet of paper handed to him by a sheriff's deputy. "Favorito, Kimberly," he muses, reading aloud. "I'll check on her. Audrey Garcia. I'll go with my gut. I'll probably just shine her on. If she is a foreign national, we'll hear about that later."

Favorito, Firth soon discovers, has already posted bond and split, but three men make his short list of people to interview. He asks the deputy to bring out Luis Aguilar-Villacorte, Pablo Vera-Jimenez and Eleazar Gonzalez-Avita, all three of whom were picked up on drug possession charges.

Firth has developed a shorthand for questioning aliens. First, he asks if they have "papers," an INS-issued green card showing proof of legal residency. If the answer is yes, Firth can check to see if the documents do, in fact, exist. He also asks inmates for their alien registration number, the first two digits of which will likely reveal whether the person is in the country legally or if they are here illegally and have previously been contacted and documented by the agency. A registration number will also tell him if the person has become a legal resident through marriage or if they were granted amnesty in the wake of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. (More than 15,000 aliens were legalized in Colorado due to the amnesty program, based on either long-term residence or because they performed needed jobs.)

Once back in his office, Firth will check all the information against existing INS records and see if the inmate's fingerprints match those on any other criminal records. Because illegal aliens "change names and establish identities at will," Robertson says, the latter task is not an easy one. It can take as long as two months for the FBI to match a set of prints. By then, chances are the alien is out of jail and long gone.

Firth's first interview on this day is with Gonzalez-Avita, a 48-year-old janitor. Gonzalez-Avita needs a shave. His dark Polo shirt and gray jeans are rumpled from a night spent atop a jail bunk. He is soft-spoken and smiles often. His English is good.

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