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Nations Hinder U.S. Effort to Deport Immigrants Convicted of Crime

6 Jul

WASHINGTON — Thousands of immigrants with criminal convictions, including for assault and attempted murder, have been released from detention because their native countries refused to take them back, according to statistics recently released by the Department of Homeland Security.

The inability to deport the criminals has prompted outrage among lawmakers and advocates of tighter immigration laws, who say that the Obama administration could be doing much more to pressure uncooperative countries.

But the department faces a number of obstacles. It is legally barred from indefinitely detaining immigrants who cannot be repatriated. And poorer nations are often reluctant to take back violent offenders because they have limited resources to deal with them.

The release of such immigrants into American cities is a particularly charged aspect of the national debate over immigration. Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has painted a grim picture of immigrant criminals menacing the streets.

More than 100 of the immigrants released by the government have later been charged in homicides. In one of the most recent examples, Jean Jacques, a Haitian immigrant, was sentenced last month to 60 years in prison for the murder of Casey Chadwick, a 25-year-old woman from Norwich, Conn.

Mr. Jacques, who previously served time for attempted murder, had been released in 2012 after the immigration agency tried several times to deport him. Haitian officials blocked the transfer because they said Mr. Jacques could not prove that he was a citizen.

Records recently released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for deportations, show that more than 8,000 immigrants with criminal convictions in the United States have been set free here since 2013. The figures, requested by Congress, include both undocumented immigrants and some with legal status.

Lawmakers, calling the issue a threat to public safety, said it was appalling that Haiti and other countries had prevented the deportations.

“There is no reason we should have to go on bended knee to ask them,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. “We shouldn’t have to keep someone in this country who is here illegally but also dangerous.”

Mr. Blumenthal said he planned to introduce legislation that would impose sanctions on countries that refuse to take back their nationals.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, urged Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, in a letter this week to do more to press recalcitrant countries. “Lives are being lost,” Mr. Grassley wrote. “It can’t continue.”

Immigration officials say their hands are tied. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process barred the government from detaining immigrants indefinitely simply for lack of a country willing to take them.

The Clinton and Bush administrations had argued that immigration law authorized, and that the Constitution permitted, indefinite detention of immigrants unable to be repatriated. But the court ruled that after six months of detention, if deportation did not seem very likely in the near future, the government would have to offer special reasons for keeping someone in custody.

“The six-month requirement makes it very difficult to hold on to these people,” Mr. Johnson told senators at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Thursday.

But experts say the federal government has a number of options to persuade countries to take back their citizens. The immigration authorities can hold immigrants longer if they can show that they pose a risk to public safety, like a threat of terrorism.

And under the law, the State Department can deny visas to nationals of countries that refuse to repatriate their citizens.

But a 2004 study by the Government Accountability Office found that the department had used that option just once, in 2001 against the South American nation of Guyana. The State Department declined to say whether it had denied visas in this manner since 2004.

Katherine M. Pfaff, a spokeswoman for the State Department, said it worked with the Department of Homeland Security to try to resolve issues with countries in individual immigration cases.

Jon Feere, an analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter immigration rules, said the State Department was putting diplomacy ahead of security.

“Public safety seems to have taken a back seat to concerns about upsetting relations with other countries,” he said. “Foreign governments should not be in charge of our immigration policies.”

According to documents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 23 countries are considered largely uncooperative in taking back their citizens. The countries include China and important allies like India and Afghanistan, as well as several African countries with close ties to the United States, among them Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Countries often refuse to take individuals identified for deportation because of a lack of proper identification, problems in confirming citizenship, or poor record-keeping.

Zhu Haiquan, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said that his government tried to work with the Department of Homeland Security in deportation cases, but that the Chinese authorities must first receive proof that the person being deported is a Chinese citizen.

“We adhere to the principle of first verification, then repatriation,” he said.

The Haitian Embassy in Washington did not respond to questions about the case of Mr. Jacques, the man sentenced in the Connecticut murder case.

But in communications with State Department and Homeland Security officials, the Haitian authorities said they had denied Mr. Jacques re-entry because he could not prove that he was a citizen.

Mr. Jacques arrived in the United States in 1992 after being intercepted in a boat off the Florida coast. In 1996, he was involved in a fight in Connecticut in which one man was killed and another was shot in the head but survived. Mr. Jacques was convicted of attempted murder and weapons charges. He served 15 years.

In January 2012, he was released into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and held for 205 days while officials worked to send him to Haiti. The Haitian government agreed to take him late that year, only to back out at the last minute, citing his lack of identity documents.

An investigation by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security found that immigration officials did not raise the case with the State Department because they did not believe that it “would intervene to encourage a foreign country to accept a violent offender like Jacques.”

Mr. Jacques was released on Nov. 9, 2012. In June 2015, he fatally stabbed Ms. Chadwick in a dispute over drugs.