Jeff Chiu, File, Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO — The case of a Vietnamese ex-con accused of brutally slaying five people in a San Francisco home has shed harsh light on Supreme Court rulings that have allowed the release of thousands of criminal immigrants into U.S. communities because their own countries refused to take them back.
After Binh Thai Luc, 35, spent years behind bars in San Quentin for an armed robbery, an immigration judge ordered him deported six years ago. Instead, he resumed his old life in a quiet San Francisco neighborhood because his native Vietnam never provided the travel documents required for his return.
While Luc's case is a particularly striking one, it is far from uncommon. From 2009 through the spring of last year, records show about 8,740 immigrants were ordered to leave the country after serving time in prison, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials let them go because their native countries wouldn't take them back by the time they had to be released from an immigration jail.
Two Supreme Court rulings have established that immigrants who have committed a broad range of criminal offenses can't be locked up in detention indefinitely while they await deportation, and should be released after 180 days unless they are likely to be deported soon. If the government decides they pose a terrorist threat or deem they are especially dangerous, such as sex offenders, some provisions allow for them to be held for a longer period.
ICE put a new immigration hold on Luc this week, and officials said the agency was following the law when they released him after the Vietnamese government ignored their request for his travel documents. The country is one of the slowest in the world to respond to the U.S. government's paperwork requests.
Now, as the investigation into the gruesome San Francisco homicides continues, the political debate over the legal standards that allow criminal immigrants to remain on U.S. soil if their own countries refuse them is flaring again, as it did following a few other high-profile murders at the hands of immigrant ex-felons lingering in the country.
"It is a tragedy that five Americans lost their lives because a dangerous criminal immigrant could not be deported to his home country," said Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, who is sponsoring a bill that would challenge the high court's rulings by expanding the pool of immigrants who could be detained for more than six months, perhaps indefinitely, if they can't be repatriated. "Dangerous criminal immigrants need to be detained."
It is "a public safety problem" to release anyone who has committed a violent crime, countered Ahilan Arulanantham, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "But the Constitution doesn't give the government to power to lock people up forever, regardless of their citizenship."
Gary Mead, ICE's executive associate director for Enforcement and Removal Operations, testified before Congress in May that he anticipated more than 4,000 immigrant former felons would be released into the community in fiscal year 2011 because their native countries did not cooperate.
ICE statistics provided to Smith's office show 1,012 immigrants with criminal records had been released by April of last year, in addition to 3,882 released in 2010 and 3,847 in 2009. ICE would not provide details about the nature of their criminal offenses, the timing of their previous convictions, or whether they ever were removed. About 4,040 immigrants without criminal records also were released during that time because their home countries would not cooperate.
"Every alien's removal requires not only cooperation within the U.S. government but also the cooperation of another country," Mead testified in May.
Luc's native Vietnam is one of about 20 countries that is slow to cooperate, if it does at all, according to ICE. While Cambodia is least cooperative, the agency said Vietnam was the second-slowest country, taking an average of 218 days to respond to paperwork requests.
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