I must say, though, it's an odd little series - full of anecdotes but with little system-level analysis other than to admit there's not evidence of a widespread safety problem. In particular, the stories examined no control group so it's impossible to know how immigrants' cases compare with other offenders. Instead we're told that,"There is no conclusive research to show whether illegal immigrants are more likely than their U.S.-born counterparts to abscond on state charges while out on bail." If that's the case, is this really a story?
After all, we know illegal immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes than Americans; it wouldn't surprise me if they're also less likely to abscond or commit new offenses while on bail.
The writer framed the stories in a sensationalistic "hide the women and children" tone, inspiring a Grits reader to email me asking:
Were these people simply released into the community as "free to go", just walk out the door? Such a high number of known criminals left to fend for themselves in a community area is not very smart (imo).But keep in mind that most people who're prosecuted don't go to prison and continue to "fend for themselves" out in the community, either on bail or on probation after they're convicted. Even for those who're sent to prison, about 99% get out. Plus, nobody thinks most of these folks are a danger - 43% of immigrants processed in the Harris jail were misdemeanor defendants with no prior criminal record, reported the Chronicle.
Deportation is no panacea. After all, even if you deport somebody, it's still pretty easy to get back across the river. It's hard not to forget that capital murderer Juan Quintero was deported after a felony conviction, then came back to the United States and ultimately killed a cop (he's currently serving a sentence of life without parole). Or consider this example from today's story:
Israel Lopez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, finished a seven-year Texas prison sentence in July 2006 for aggravated sexual assault of a child and was turned over to ICE agents, prison records say. ICE officials confirm he was deported in August 2006. Less than a year later, in June 2007, Lopez was arrested again on suspicion of assaulting a Harris County sheriff's deputySo while many people see deportation as a fitting punishment when an illegal immigrant commits a crime, in reality it does little to keep the bad guys from returning. Though the third story in the series criticized placing illegal immigrants on probation, in some instances that's a safer bet for the public than shipping somebody back to their home country. When that happens, they can come back any time they like with no probation or oversight.
A big shortcoming of the Chron series is that it failed to place the Harris Jail dilemma in the context of broader immigration policy issues. Bottom line, ICE is so overwhelmed trying to "get tuff" on immigration that all their detention facilities are full of people caught swimming the river or who were snatched up in raids on employers - mostly average workers, in other words.
With this strategy, ICE has soaked up virtually all the private prison capacity in the state (and a big chunk of the federal court docket) with people who, before the recent immigration kerfuffle, would never have been criminally charged. As a result of the Bush Administration's changes in federal charging policies, immigration cases have come to utterly dominate Texas' southern and western federal judicial district dockets.
The irony is that immigrants as a whole commit few crimes by comparison to Americans, so most of the workers taking up space in ICE detention centers aren't actually a threat (plus many would be going home because of the divebombing economy, anyway). However, because ICE detention centers are full, there's not enough room for immigrants identified at the jails who committed serious crimes. It's a classic case of political grandstanding winning out over public safety.
That's why ICE doesn't place more holds on undocumented immigrants in the Harris County Jail - there aren't enough prison beds to hold all the crooks on top of the immigrant workers in custody already.
While there's some interesting information in these stories, to me the series didn't identify some big danger we should fear as much as it supplies an example of grossly misplaced federal priorities. As columnist Lisa Falkenberg wrote, it shows that "immigration officials should spend more time at the Harris County Jail and less raiding Shipley Donuts, rag factories and meat-packing plants." That pretty much sums it up.
UPDATE: See this 11-22 Houston Chronicle editorial pondering ICE's immigration enforcement priorities.