In the wake of a violent crime spree that authorities say was the work of three illegal immigrants, U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite is asking a reasonable question about why the alleged ringleader was previously released from custody. But to ask "who dropped the ball" with deportation is to point the finger back at Congress. This is a problem of staggering dimensions.
Just look at the numbers in Hillsborough County alone. Last year, jail officials notified Immigration and Customs Enforcement of 11,930 adult and juvenile inmates who were born outside the United States. ICE responded with retainers for only 700. Of those 700, jail officials don't know many were picked up or deported.
"This is an issue a lot of sheriffs across the nation have been screaming about," says Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee, "and I don't think people get it. ... If you don't do a better job on the border, in the meantime you're going to have these collateral issues that are going to be very difficult to control."
In this case, St. Petersburg police had targeted Rigoberto Moron Martinez, 20, as a suspect in an Aug. 3 robbery and rape at a downtown restaurant. Hoping to get a DNA sample, they asked Hillsborough deputies to pick him up for failure to appear in court for an old domestic violence charge. Martinez was released on bail on Aug. 6, after spending only five hours in jail. Ten days later, say sheriff's officials, Martinez and two accomplices raped and robbed two women in Apollo Beach.
The three men are now in custody, and miscommunication between St. Petersburg police and Hillsborough deputies seems to be a contributing factor in this tragedy. But Brown-Waite, a member of the Homeland Security Committee, is raising the larger issue of immigration enforcement: If ICE can't keep up with all the estimated 12-million undocumented immigrants, can't it at least put the clamps on the ones who are thrown in jail?
In ICE's defense, Martinez was booked on a misdemeanor, not a violent felony. But that is little consolation. The reality is that ICE has neither the manpower, the technology nor the inclination to begin deporting illegal immigrants who are arrested by local law enforcement.
In turn, most local law enforcement agencies don't have the database access or training to determine whether jail inmates are in fact illegal immigrants. (As one expert told the Times: "I've been an immigration lawyer for 25 years and sometimes I can't figure out someone's immigration status.")
In other words, Martinez didn't really walk free on Aug. 6 because someone "dropped the ball." The ball was never in play to begin with. Brown-Waite wants answers, and she deserves them. But she and her congressional colleagues need to be willing accept the whole truth. When ICE can't even deal with illegal immigrants who land in jail, immigration law becomes a parody.