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Originally published Thursday, May 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Early deportation sought for immigrant offenders to save prison costs

The state is looking to a rarely used 16-year-old law that authorizes immediate deportation of nonviolent immigrant inmates as a way for its cash-strapped prison system to save money.

Seattle Times staff reporters

The state is looking to a rarely used 16-year-old law that authorizes immediate deportation of nonviolent immigrant inmates — before they've served their time — as a way for its cash-strapped prison system to try to save money.

The 1993 early-deportation law targets both illegal and legal immigrants who have been convicted of low-risk felonies such as drug and property crimes. About 360 such offenders are currently in Washington prisons.

State Department of Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail has not heard of this law ever successfully being used and believes the last time it was attempted was in the mid-1990s. But with his agency facing hard cuts in one of the bleakest state budgets in decades, Vail is moving to put it into use.

The law requires that prosecutors and sentencing judges sign off on the early deportation of offenders, whose removal from the country would be handled by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

"This law languished for several years, and we didn't get much cooperation from judges and prosecutors, but these are extraordinary times," Vail said. "Given the budget reality, if it's not this cut then it's some other cut."

Vail's plan would speed up an existing process for deporting immigrant offenders, removing them at the start of their prison sentence, rather than at the end. A handful of other states use some form of early deportation, though most require their inmates to serve at least part of their sentence.

Washington's plan for early deportation comes as state and local governments across the country are struggling to stem the inflow of illegal immigrants, concerned about how much they are costing in terms of health care, education and incarceration.

Yet the plan raises concerns on both sides of the immigration debate.

While immigrant advocates worry that incarcerated immigrants could be denied access to attorneys and information that might help them fight deportation, those favoring tighter immigration controls believe that releasing them before they've done their time rewards them with a free plane ticket home — and sets them up to sneak back across the border.

Before he can move forward with this plan, however, Vail still needs to get the state's prosecuting attorneys and superior court justices on board.

The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys did not return calls for comment, but Spokane County Superior Court Judge Tari S. Eitzen, head of the state Superior Court Judges' Association, said she will sit down with Vail in the next few weeks with the idea of creating paperwork so the process can work uniformly across the state.

Eitzen said requests from the Department of Corrections will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

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The idea has been widely discussed in the state over the past several months. A bill that would have allowed for early deportations, without clearance by prosecutors and judges, died in the Legislature.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, an early backer of such a plan as a way to save money, said in a recent letter to Vail that she still wants to move ahead with it but wants to make sure that immigrant inmates have access to information about their immigration cases and to legal representation if they want it.

She also wanted to make it clear that the federal government, not the state, would determine who is deported.

The Department of Corrections needs to cut $130 million from its budget between now and 2011, and so hopes to eliminate 1,500 prison beds.

Of the 32,000 inmates now housed in the state's prisons, about 360 would qualify for early deportation.

Under the measure proposed in the Legislature, Vail had estimated that their early removal would save his department as much as $8 million over the next two years.

But their removal will occur at a slower pace using the 1993 law, because each case must be considered individually by judges and prosecutors. So Vail expects the savings to be something less than hoped.

In Washington, male inmates are taken upon sentencing to the Washington Corrections Center near Shelton, in Mason County, for processing before being assigned to a state prison. Women are processed at a center near Gig Harbor.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers identify those among them who are deportable once they have served their time.

For deportable inmates to get early removal under this proposal, they must agree to certain conditions — including that they won't return illegally to the U.S. Deportees will be told that if they do return to the U.S., and are rearrested, will have to serve out the remainder of their sentence.

While in state custody, immigrants would be given — as they are now — the option of appearing before a visiting immigration judge.

And before the state turns them over to the federal government for removal, the immigration judge must have issued a deportation order and ICE must already have secured their travel documents, including an agreement from their home country to accept them.

Inmates would not be transferred to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, where ICE detains immigrants before they are deported. Rather, they would remain in state custody until deportation, also saving the federal government detention costs.

"For citizens of Mexico who don't need travel documents, they could be removed, if the state wishes, in as little as 30 days" after sentencing, said Neil Clark, Seattle-based field director for ICE.

The program troubles some immigrant advocates, including Jorge Barón, executive director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. He said while he appreciates that the governor understands the concerns of advocates, there are still questions about how the program would work.

What's more, he said, immigration attorneys have in the past been able to "catch" U.S. citizens at the detention center who had been incorrectly processed for deportation. "People whom ICE has labeled as deportable may not always be, and that's our concern with this program," he said.

Ira Mehlman, Seattle-based spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said deportation should come at the end of time served.

"To simply let people out before they have served their time and send them home to wherever they are from means that in the end their punishment for having committed a crime is a ticket home."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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