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ICE: Only 2 percent of immigrants released from custody get deported

Editor’s note: KTAR News’ Martha Maurer recently sat down with Henry Lucero, Phoenix field office director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The topic: understanding why hundreds of immigrants were released from ICE custody last week and dropped off at churches across Arizona.

Only 2 percent of family units seeking asylum who are released from ICE custody are ever repatriated, according to Lucero.

“That means 98 percent are going through proceedings or we are ultimately looking for them right now,” Lucero said.

That staggering statistic is a reason why the Arizona border with Mexico is seeing a large draw of family units from Central America, Lucero explained.

A large number of them detained end up being released from custody after around two weeks.

Who are they?

It is estimated that 85 percent of immigrants who arrive at Arizona-Mexico border are from Guatemala. Most are asking for asylum as soon as they arrive.

“What DHS [Department of Homeland Security] as an agency suggests is if you are coming as an asylum seeker, that you claim asylum in the first country that you enter,” Lucero said.

Families from Central America, instead, are continuing north when they get to Mexico.

In speaking with some families from Guatemala, Lucero shared an explanation they gave him as to why they made the long and dangerous journey to the Arizona desert.

“On the news in Guatemala they are saying that you can get a work permit if you’re in a family, if you’re coming with your child, and that you’re going to be released,” Lucero said.

He added that human smugglers are taking note. Immigrants are paying smugglers to get them to the border. Instead of attempting to cross into Arizona illegally, the smugglers are instructing the immigrants to find a border patrol agent and turn themselves in.

Border Patrol in Yuma provides a similar story. In fiscal year 2017, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended nearly 13,000 immigrants, mainly families. Officials said they are on track to double that number.

“They were told by smuggling organizations and the smugglers that all they have to do is jump over the wall or however they may cross, seek out an agent, and then they will be able to claim asylum that way,” explained Jose Garibay, a border patrol agent in Yuma recently told KTAR News.

Garibay said the Border Patrol has been forced to use resources meant for national security for other purposes, like providing aid to injured immigrants fleeing their homeland.

Once families are released, where do they go?

Last week, it is estimated 400 to 700 immigrants, mainly families, were released from ICE custody and bused to churches across Arizona. ICE did not provide specific numbers.

In Phoenix, two churches received around 100 immigrants each last week.

In order to handle the increased number of immigrants, released non-governmental organizations (NGOs) work with ICE to provide temporary shelter, food and guidance for their next stop. The majority of the immigrants KTAR News reporters saw arrive at the churches were equipped with ankle monitors.

“We know where they’re going, where they tell us they’re going,” Lucero said.

All immigrants who are being released are given notices to appear within 7-10 days in the city where they’re headed.

“Over 95 percent of people are not staying in the state of Arizona. Most of them are going east of Arizona, generally to the East Coast,” Lucero said.

If the immigrants do not check in or if they cut off their ankle monitors, they become fugitives and are subject to arrest and prosecution for destruction of government property and hindering their removal efforts.

If immigrants do skip out on their court hearings or cut off their monitors, it’s up to the ICE office in the state where it happened to look for the fugitives.

Most immigrants seeking asylum stay in the US

Of the family units who are showing up at the Arizona-Mexico border, most are being released from custody within 10-13 days, below the legal limit imposed by the Flores settlement, which prohibits the government from holding family units in custody beyond 20 days.

“People know that, smugglers know that. They take advantage of it,” Lucero said.

“That’s why there’s likely a big draw to the United States of family units or people acting as family unit.”

He said that shows there are no consequences for immigrant families to come to the U.S. Families are released within three weeks and continue their asylum cases from outside of custody.

Immigration processes like asylum can take several years. That’s where a lot of immigrants disappear from radar.

“Even if you get to a point where you’re released from custody for two or three years, at that final hearing to see an immigration judge, you may not show up because you feel your claim is not going to be approved,” Lucero said.

He went on to say at that point, ICE is dedicating resources to look for them.

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Mark Carlson contributed to this report.

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