Aliens who commit serious crimes--including murder, rape and drug trafficking--are a growing problem that is already draining law enforcement resources and threatening public safety, officials say.
The main problem, say congressional and Administration officials, is a lengthy deportation process that enables released convicts to commit new crimes while their immigration cases are pending, a failure to control illegal immigration or misplaced priorities within the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The result, says Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, is "that we're talking about a massive problem, with potentially hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens who have committed crimes."
Smith is ranking Republican on the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, refugees and international law.
Rep. Bruce A. Morrison (D-Conn.), the subcommittee chairman, says the country is "overwhelmed" with hundreds of thousands of criminal aliens, yet the INS is only deporting a fraction of them.
INS spokesman Duke Austin said the agency has increased its deportations of criminal aliens--those convicted or accused of a crime--yet is bound by the law, which gives most criminal aliens the right to a full review of their cases in immigration court pending deportation. An alien can prolong a deportation for at least a year and sometimes two years.
During that time, Austin said, aliens have been known to commit new crimes and end up back in prison. He said there are only 60 immigration judges nationwide handling thousands of cases.
Although the system may be abused in some cases, an immigration rights activist says it protects everyone's right to due process.
"There are lots of people who are legally entitled to be in the country, and who but for that process might be forcibly evicted," said Charles Kamasaki, a vice president of National Council of La Raza.