Lack of detention space hinders efforts to track fugitive immigrants

Inspector general recommends more resources, notes number of fugitives rose nearly 88 percent from 2001 to 2006.

A shortage of space to hold illegal immigrants is hampering the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency's efforts to capture fugitives, according to a report released Monday by the Homeland Security Department inspector general.

The report cited ICE Detention and Removal Office officers who said the agency is experiencing a "lack of adequate detention space" that "limits the effectiveness" of fugitive operations.

Fugitive apprehension teams face a backlog that has steadily increased, the report stated. More than 623,000 cases were in the pipeline as of August 2006, the IG found.

"The backlog of fugitive alien cases has increased each fiscal year since the program was established in February 2002," the report said. From September 2001 to August 2006 -- the most recent data available in the report -- the total number fugitives rose nearly 88 percent.

The report put part of the increase squarely on the facilities, and cited one field director who "reported ceasing fugitive operations for six weeks because of insufficient bed space." Another referred to bed space as one fugitive team's "biggest limitation." The report said the backlog "is growing at a rate of more than 50,000 fugitives per year" and that it "is highly improbable that it will be eliminated in the near future."

Sources familiar with detention arrangements for illegal immigrants said DHS is being pushed ever closer to needing to expand its capacity. Federal officials have rented jail space from local institutions, but those are beginning to fill up, the sources said.

"At jails, no one wants to deal with the extra headache of dealing with" illegal immigrants, one source said. "We reached capacity already."

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff acknowledged a "tremendous strain" on detention facilities last year, when he sought to expedite deportation of illegal immigrants from El Salvador.

In a Dec. 22, 2006, memorandum, ICE Assistant Secretary Julie Myers told OIG investigators that Congress had allotted the agency additional funds "earmarked specifically to address detention bed space." She also said ICE's adherence to legal requirements sometimes results in aliens being released "where there is not sufficient evidence to believe they pose a risk or flight."

The IG report recommended that DHS and ICE provide the detention and removal component with the resources needed to detain all captured fugitives. It also called for some officers who are not assigned to a fugitive operations team to serve as firearms instructors, jail inspectors or juvenile coordinators.

The report praised fugitive operations teams for coordinating data and intelligence with other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, but said that ICE needs to complete the hiring process for the illegal immigrant tracking teams. The report said the agency's failure to do so reduced its effectiveness.

ICE officials did not respond to requests for comment.