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AP: No progress in Rhode Island immigrant prison release program

January 20, 2010

Eric Tucker reports for the Associated Press:

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—A federal program allowing illegal immigrant inmates to get out of prison if they agree to be deported was trumpeted by the governor as a sensible way to save money in his cash-strapped state — already saddled with costs blamed on such prisoners.

After all, such early deportation programs have saved millions of dollars in states such as Georgia and Arizona, resulting in thousands of illegal immigrants being sent home before they completed their sentences.

But a year and a half after Rhode Island signed up for the initiative, not one person has been deported early and the program hasn’t saved money. That’s because of the relatively small population of illegal immigrants at the state prisons — called the Adult Correctional Institutions — and the strict criteria required of inmates to participate.

Regardless, state officials say the Rapid REPAT program, under the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, remains sound public policy — even if it’s untested here.

Some advocates for immigrants’ rights say the lack of early deportations suggests the problem of illegal immigration has been exaggerated in the state by Gov. Don Carcieri and others.

“To the extent that it dispels myths about the ACI being overrun with undocumented immigrants, it’s a good thing,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Across the country, illegal immigrants accused of crimes are sometimes deported before trial in instances where they’re picked up by federal immigration authorities. And some local law enforcement agencies are moving to speed the removal process by using fingerprint technology to check both the criminal background and immigration status of arrestees during the booking process.

Rapid REPAT, however, focuses on illegal immigrants who are already convicted and imprisoned. Proponents say it spares states the cost of incarcerating inmates who’d probably be deported anyway, allowing immigrant inmates to return to their home countries without completing their sentences.

To qualify, inmates must be nonviolent offenders who have received final deportation orders and who have exhausted or waived appeals of their criminal convictions and agree not to fight their removal. They cannot return to the United States after deportation. Inmates must volunteer to participate in the program.

“To us, if we identify one person, one criminal alien, and get him off the streets and out of the country, we’re happy,” said Todd Thurlow, assistant field office director for ICE’s Boston field office.

ICE touts major cost-savings in other states that use Rapid REPAT or similar programs.

In Georgia, the bureau says Rapid REPAT and a predecessor program had saved $204 million and removed 3,612 criminal aliens as of August 2009. And ICE says its Phoenix field office has removed nearly 2,700 people since 2005 under a program that authorizes the deportation of some foreign-born inmates who have served half their sentences. [Read the rest of the article here.]

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