Lamar Smith Acts to 'Keep Our Communities Safe'

By Jessica M. Vaughan on May 25, 2011

Every year, ICE releases about 4,000 criminal aliens back into U.S. communities because their home countries will not accept them for deportation, and because the Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot be detained indefinitely. This group includes murderers, rapists, cop killers, child predators, and gang members who are then free to continue their life of crime here, and they get a work permit in case their crime doesn't pay enough. Yesterday, the House immigration subcommittee held a hearing on this problem and on a new bill (H.R. 1932) to address it, introduced by House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX).

Immigration authorities have long been frustrated by this issue, but public attention was rekindled earlier this year, when investigative reporters at the Boston Fox News affiliate broke a story (see here and here) about the release in February of Loeun Heng, a Cambodian gang member who helped murder a 16-year old disabled boy in Revere, Mass., in 2003 as he walked home from a football game.

Yesterday there was good news. First of all, Fox News Boston reported that Cambodia has finally agreed to take back Heng, who is now off the streets and back in ICE custody. This likely would not have occurred but for the public attention to the case.

And, at the hearing, an ICE official testified that DHS and the State Department have at last implemented a plan to deal with these cases more aggressively in the future. This gets at the crux of the problem – the unwillingness of certain countries to accept their citizens back after they have committed crimes and violated immigration laws. One can't help but wonder, if these countries won't take their citizens back, then why are we still issuing them visas?

The new process, outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding signed in April, is as follows: If countries don't issue travel documents to their removable citizens within 30 days, then ICE can initiate a "demarche" (a polite diplomatic nasty note) to the appropriate foreign officials. ICE has prepared nine of these so far. If there is no action, then the country's ambassador will be called in for a chat, possibly to include the threat of suspension of issuance of certain visas, or even the possible suspension of foreign aid.

Visa sanctions work. Frankly, the issuance of visas is the most important bilateral issue with most of these countries, and when they are faced with the possibility that their political and social elites might be blocked from visiting Disney World or Nordstrom's, it gets their attention, even more so than the threat of losing foreign aid, which only affects their poor. The United States has done this only once before, in 2001, when we stopped issuing visas to government officials and their families in Guyana. Within two months, Guyana had a change of heart, and agreed that it would take back 112 of 113 of its deported undesirables. (For more on this see this 2004 GAO report.)

There is no official list, but according to one of my ICE sources, the following countries are a perennial problem: Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, countries of the former Soviet Union, India, and China. ICE has prepared demarches for: Iraq, Trinidad & Tobago, Liberia, Antigua and Barbuda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The Smith bill provides an additional tool for ICE, in the event that diplomatic efforts aren't possible or don't work. The bill would allow ICE to continue to detain (with periodic custody reviews) those aliens who have been ordered removed but cannot be deported, and who represent a threat to public safety, public health, or national security. This bill will keep thousands of dangerous aliens off the streets. In addition, it will deter the alien or the alien's family from refusing to cooperate in the removal process, which is another way that the process can be thwarted.

It will be interesting to see if the members of Congress who claim to be in favor of immigration enforcement that focuses on public safety will prove it by supporting this vital and overdue legislation. Yesterday some, including Reps. Lofgren (D-CA) and Conyers (D-TX), suggested they would not.