Clara Munoz has finally gone home. Last week she boarded an Immigration and Naturalization Service bus bound for El Paso, Texas. Once there, INS agents watched as she and other passengers walked across the bridge into Mexico. At that point, Munoz and her compatriots became the responsibility--and headache--of the Mexican authorities.

Munoz has certainly been a headache for the Americans. In the past thirteen years she has been arrested in Colorado a dozen times, racking up busts for theft, flight to avoid prosecution and driving under the influence, and she's been convicted of shoplifting on at least two occasions. She has been quick to change addresses and even more swift to assume new identities--at last count, she was known by fifteen aliases. But the INS didn't catch up with her until last month, when Denver police arrested her yet again, this time on a felony theft charge.

Munoz's one-way ticket to the border is supposed to be standard procedure, the U.S. government's way of dealing with undocumented aliens. But forcible deportation has become an increasingly rare event in Colorado, even for illegals like Munoz who've been convicted of criminal offenses. Some petty criminals use their alien status as a virtual "Get Out of Jail Free" card, agreeing to depart the country "voluntarily" in return for a dropped jail term.

Even convicted felons aren't necessarily ordered to leave--and if they are, many simply evade the justice system and stay put. And those who do return to their home country often will head right back to the United States.

The government does play hardball with some illegal aliens. Those found guilty of drug-related offenses are almost always booted out of the country directly upon conviction or their release from prison. So, too, are those found guilty of offenses involving firearms--or any felony that results in a prison sentence of a year or more. But crimes such as burglary, for instance, aren't considered serious enough to merit tough action.

"We've established as our priority that they have to be convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude and they have to receive a sentence of a year or more," says Denver INS spokesman Scott Robertson. "So burglary does not meet my definition, and I'm not interested in them, and they probably won't be deported, because I do not have the agents to spend the time to work all of the people. Nor do I have a place to put them."

The well-known inability of the INS to deal with the vast numbers of undocumented aliens has led to an increased boldness on the part of those with criminal backgrounds, say police. "There aren't enough measures taken to dissuade them from coming back," says Denver police detective Mike Staskin, the man who arrested Munoz last month. "The INS [agents] work their rear ends off, but the system just isn't addressing the problem. It seems politically correct to say that people are just here to financially better themselves, but that's just a nice way of saying that we have borders and immigration laws but we don't really mean to enforce them."

INS employees say their own agency's guidelines mean they often have to watch as thieves, prostitutes and people found guilty of assault slip through their fingers. "There are so many aliens arrested every day that we don't have enough people to process the paperwork [for] deportation proceedings," says Robertson.

As a result, he adds, "We deal with the cream of the crop. No. That's a bad analogy. We take the baddest of the bad."

Even foes of the present immigration system say most undocumented aliens only want to live quietly and work hard. But Robertson and law enforcement authorities say an increasing number of illegals have no qualms about breaking the law. Ironically, says Robertson, "that may be partly due to the fact that we try to keep them from getting jobs."

At last count, there were 1,453 deportable aliens incarcerated in Colorado's federal and state prisons. That number doesn't include those held in city and county jails. "I would guess there's at least as many in the counties as in the prison system," Robertson says, "but we don't know because we don't get out to the county jails to count them."

Denver is one of the few Colorado counties that keeps a running total on the number of undocumented aliens--specifically Mexican nationals--held in its jail. The practice dates back about six years, when jail officials began keeping track of the population as a courtesy to the Mexican consulate here. Family members in Mexico would worry when they had no word from loved ones in the States, says Denver Sheriff's Major Fred Oliva, and some would contact the consulate for information. Families tend to be comforted by word that a relative is alive, says Oliva, even if he or she is sitting in jail.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Karen Bowers