A system's fatal flaws
Thousands of inmates admit they're in the U.S. illegally, but even those convicted of violent crimes are often released right back onto Houston's streets
By SUSAN CARROLL
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Nov. 15, 2008, 11:41PM
About this series
This three-day Houston Chronicle investigation examines how scores of illegal immigrants cycle through local jails and fall through the cracks of immigration enforcement.
Day 1: Revolving Door
Illegal immigrants, including convicted child molesters, drug dealers and suspected murderers, avoid deportation after being arrested in Harris County.
Day 2: Breaking Bond
Dozens of suspected criminals, who told jailers they were in the country illegally, are freed on bond, later abscond and are accused of more crimes.
Day 3: Second Chances
Illegal immigrants convicted of crimes from prostitution to sexual abuse avoid prison time by being sentenced to probation.
Some Harris County Jail inmates who said they were in the country illegally were ordered deported decades ago, but never left. The worst escalated to commit more serious crimes. Their court files hold stories of squandered second chances. See where they are now.
Federal immigration officials allowed scores of violent criminals — some ordered deported decades ago — to walk away from Harris County Jail despite the inmates' admission to local authorities that they were in the country illegally, a Houston Chronicle investigation found.
A review of thousands of criminal and immigration records shows that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials didn't file the paperwork to detain roughly 75 percent of the more than 3,500 inmates who told jailers during the booking process that they were in the U.S. illegally.
Although most of the inmates released from custody were accused of minor crimes, hundreds of convicted felons — including child molesters, rapists and drug dealers — also managed to avoid deportation after serving time in Harris County's jails, according to the Chronicle review, which was based on documents filed over a period of eight months starting in June 2007, the earliest immigration records available.
Other key findings in the investigation include:
•In 177 cases reviewed by the Chronicle, inmates who were released from jail after admitting to being in the country illegally later were charged with additional crimes. More than half of those charges were felonies, including aggravated sexual assault of a child and capital murder.
•About 11 percent of the 3,500 inmates in the review had three or more prior convictions in Harris County. Many had repeatedly cycled through the system despite a history of violence and, in some cases, outstanding deportation orders.
The investigation found that the federal government's system to identify and deport illegal immigrants in Harris County Jail is overwhelmed and understaffed. Gaps in the system have allowed some convicted criminals to avoid detection by immigration officials despite being previously deported. The problems are national in scope, fueled by a shortage of money and manpower.
In reaction to the Chronicle's findings, U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, said ICE needs more resources to target immigrants convicted of crimes.
"There's no question about it," Poe said. "Criminals from foreign countries who get caught after committing a crime and prosecuted should go to the top of the list of people we deport."
ICE removed 107,000 convicted criminals from the U.S. in the 2008 fiscal year, which ended in September. But during the same time frame, ICE sent home more than two times as many illegal immigrants without criminal records, prompting criticism from some members of Congress.
Kenneth Landgrebe, ICE's field office director for detention and removal in Houston, said officials are doing the best they can with the resources they have. ICE trained nine Harris County jailers this summer through a federal program that empowers local law enforcement to act as immigration agents.
The Houston ICE office set a record by removing 8,226 illegal immigrants with criminal records from Southeast Texas last year, an increase of about 7.5 percent from fiscal 2007.
"No agency has enough law enforcement officers to do the job the way they'd like," Landgrebe said. "If you look at law enforcement in general — at Houston or New York City or Los Angeles police — do they apprehend every criminal that commits a crime? No. Do they arrest every person that speeds in a traffic zone? No.
"We have to prioritize what we handle," Landgrebe said.
ICE officials estimated that between 300,000 and 450,000 inmates incarcerated in the U.S. are eligible for deportation each year.
Though ICE has improved screening in federal and state prisons in recent years, the agency estimates it screens inmates in only about 10 percent of the nation's jails.
This spring, ICE officials announced a plan to identify and deport the most serious offenders in the nation's prisons and jails, estimating it would cost between $930 million and $1 billion and take about 3 1/2 years.
Congress is pressuring ICE to move faster.
"The present situation is unacceptable," said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., chairman of the House Homeland Security appropriations committee.
"The highest priority for ICE should be deporting people who have proven their ability and their willingness to do us harm. Immigration is a very, very contentious issue, but this seems to be one thing almost everyone agrees is a priority."
Yet, the Chronicle's review found hundreds of missed opportunities to deport convicted criminals, perpetuating a cycle of crime and violence.
•Armando De La Cruz, a Mexican national, told jailers on two occasions in 2007 that he was undocumented. Both times, he was convicted of assaulting his wife and released after serving his jail time. De La Cruz is now back in Harris County Jail, charged with raping a woman at knife point behind a southeast Houston apartment complex in July, and attempting to rape another woman less than a week later. His defense attorney, Ricardo Gonzalez, did not return phone calls.
•Pedro Alvarez, a convicted sex offender from El Salvador who was first deported in 1991, racked up eight convictions in Harris County over a span of two decades and was allowed to walk free from jail multiple times — as recently as the spring of 2007. Immigration officials finally charged him with re-entry after deportation in February. Sandra Zamora Zayas, the attorney who represented Alvarez in federal court in South Texas, did not return phone messages.
"It's just amazing how long it took them to catch up with him," the mother of a 5-year-old girl Alvarez sexually assaulted in 1988 said in an interview with the Chronicle, after learning about Alvarez's extended criminal history.
'Never lied about who I am'
Miguel Mejia Rodriguez, 36, is locked up on the fifth floor of the San Jacinto Jail downtown, accused of raping and sodomizing a second-grader.
It is the fourth time in 12 years that Rodriguez, an unemployed drifter from Zacatecas, Mexico, has landed in Harris County Jail. Over the years, Rodriguez has served time for drug possession, theft, trespassing and indecent exposure. He told jailers he was in the country illegally in December 2006, after a security guard caught him touching himself in an apartment complex parking lot, records show.
But ICE officials did not file paperwork to detain Rodriguez. He was released after serving his 25-day sentence.
"I never lied about who I am, or where I'm from. I'm 100 percent Mexican," Rodriguez said in a jail interview with the Chronicle in September, after he was accused of the rape and sodomy of a 7-year-old.
According to court records, the girl told a friend Rodriguez started abusing her after her mother died in 2005, while he was living with her family.
The girl was hospitalized and treated for syphilis, court records show. In an interview with Houston police detectives, Rodriguez admitted to contracting syphilis from a woman he met in a Houston cantina, but he denied raping the girl. He said she was a "troublemaker" who lied because he punished her when she misbehaved.
When he was arrested on the sexual assault charge in July 2007, Rodriguez again told jailers he was in the country illegally, records show. In June, nearly a year after his arrest, ICE officials filed paperwork to detain Rodriguez, who is scheduled for trial in December.
Katherine Anne Bridges, deaf and mute, was just 19 in the fall of 2004 when she told Harris County authorities that Jeremias Fuentes, her boyfriend, tried to grab their 6-month-old baby boy from her arms and kicked her in the face. He hid her emergency phone so she couldn't call for help. Fuentes was sentenced to 20 days in jail.
Nearly three years later, in August 2007, Fuentes was arrested again, suspected of interfering with case workers trying to interview Bridges about abuse allegations. Fuentes, 36, told jailers he was an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, records show. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail. He was released after ICE didn't file paperwork to detain him.
On the morning of Nov. 26, 2007, a medical examiner puzzled over the writing scrawled on Bridges' palm. It read in part: "Payback because ... help me."
The evening before, Bridges' body had been found facedown in the bedroom closet of her southwest Houston apartment complex. She had blood in her brown hair and a dozen stab wounds on her face, neck, chest and back. A knife rested on the baby crib.
Detectives questioned Fuentes, who admitted he stabbed Bridges, but he said it was self-defense. In December, immigration officials filed the paperwork to detain Fuentes, who declined a request for a jail interview. He is scheduled for trial in February.
Andy Kahan, director of the Houston Mayor Crime Victims Office, said he hoped Bridges' case could be a ''catalyst for change" and encourage local authorities to work more closely with ICE to ensure inmates with violent criminal histories are vetted before release.
"There were numerous opportunities to do the correct thing, and that's have him deported, and that didn't happen. And as a result, a woman paid dearly with her life," Kahan said.
Matthew Baker, an assistant field office director for ICE in Houston, said agents try to screen out as many violent criminals as possible to avoid preventable crimes. Many illegal immigrants are identified by ICE in the state's prison system, he added, even if they are not caught while in jail.
"No one can measure the cases where we picked up and removed someone and prevented that carjacking or that drunk driving accident that kills a family," Baker said. "There are hundreds of thousands of incidents that we prevent every year; those are not measured because they don't happen."
Facts vs. fears
While the Chronicle's review found cases involving hardened criminals who slipped through the deportation net, the investigation also revealed that 43 percent of suspects who were arrested and admitted being in the country illegally were charged with misdemeanors and had no prior criminal record in Harris County.
Immigrant advocates cautioned against stereotyping illegal immigrants based on high-profile cases. Most research has found that recent immigrants are far less likely than their U.S.-born counterparts to commit crimes and end up in prison.
In Texas, foreign nationals made up approximately 15 percent of the state's population in 2005, and about 7 percent of state prison offenders.
"Many people see it as a profound insult when someone who is here without permission commits a heinous crime," said Rebecca Bernhardt, director of policy development for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. "To be outraged at the individual who committed that crime is an appropriate response. But to be angry at everybody who is just here trying to work to support their family and comes from the same background as that defendant is a mistake."
Asking about status
The nation's system for identifying and deporting immigrants convicted of crimes is largely secretive. ICE officials refuse to disclose the names or basic immigration history of people detained and marked for deportation, citing privacy protections in federal law.
To better understand how ICE screens inmates, the Chronicle obtained a copy of a database, maintained by the Harris County Sheriff's Office, of inmates who tell jailers during booking that they are in the U.S. illegally.
The Sheriff's Office voluntarily started questioning inmates about their legal status and created the database in September 2006, after a previously deported felon killed Houston police officer Rodney Johnson. During the booking process, inmates are asked whether they are in the country illegally. If they answer 'yes,' their name and jail ID number is entered into a database that is shared with ICE agents in Houston.
The Chronicle compared the entries in the Sheriff's Office database with immigration ''holds" placed by ICE with the Sheriff's Office. An immigration hold is essentially a request by ICE agents that law enforcement notify them before releasing an inmate. ICE officials confirmed that jailers notify them before releasing immigrants who are marked for possible deportation.
The Houston Police Department, which runs the city's jails, notifies ICE only about suspects with immigration warrants and previously deported felons.
Of the more than 80,000 bookings into Harris County Jail during the review period, about 3,500 — less than 5 percent — admitted to being in the country illegally. ICE filed paperwork to detain roughly 900 of the 3,500. During the review period, the agency also filed paperwork to detain 2,500 suspects not included in the database, indicating that many immigrants who are eligible for deportation do not disclose that they are here illegally.
ICE, however, could not confirm whether the inmates marked for ''holds" actually were deported.
Landgrebe, the ICE official, also questioned the quality of the information in the Sheriff's Office database, because it was based only on inmate responses and was entered by some jailers without immigration training.
ICE officials would not answer specific questions about ICE staffing at the Harris County or city jails but said screening has improved in recent months. In October, the Sheriff's Office started testing a Homeland Security database that gives jailers access to millions of immigration records. The county's participation in the federal government's 287(g) program, which trains jailers to act as immigration agents, also is expected to help improve screening, ICE officials said.
Harris County Sheriff-elect Adrian Garcia, who defeated incumbent Tommy Thomas in the November general election, said he plans to evaluate the office's participation in the program after he takes office in January.
Thomas said he believes the program is necessary — at least until ICE has the resources to improve screening.
''In a perfect world, I'd like to see our borders secured to where we have someone we find to be here illegally, we turn them over to ICE and have them deported," Thomas said. ''But that's not something that's happening at this day and time."
Chronicle reporter Chase Davis contributed to this report.