Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft on Thursday reluctantly ordered the Immigration and Naturalization Service to begin releasing 3,400 foreign nationals who have completed sentences for criminal convictions in the United States but whose home countries won't take them back.
The decision comes three weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the INS cannot detain the criminals indefinitely, even if there is no country to which they can be deported. INS policy allowed holding criminal immigrants as long as necessary to protect public safety.
"The Department of Justice and the INS are obligated to abide by the Supreme Court's ruling and to apply it to those aliens who are currently detained whenever the courts order such releases," Ashcroft said in a prepared statement.
The detainees, most of whom are legal immigrants who never applied for citizenship, are being held at INS-run detention centers or local jails around the country that have contracts with the INS. Some may be released as early as next week, officials said.
Their status in detention limbo is an unintended consequence of immigration reforms passed in 1996, when Congress limited the rights of noncitizens who commit crimes and made it easier to deport them.
Since then, they have been at the center of a dispute between advocates, who say it is unfair to hold people in jail indefinitely, and the INS, which is reluctant to release noncitizen criminals into the community.
Ashcroft vowed to act against countries that refuse to accept the immigrants or unreasonably delay their return. He said in Denver that he may ask Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to "discontinue granting visas" to citizens of countries that do not cooperate.
Countries such as Great Britain, Brazil, Canada, Bolivia and Mexico take back criminal immigrants, Ashcroft said. But others, such as Vietnam, Cuba, Laos and Cambodia, have refused. Nearly 1,100 of the criminal immigrants are from those four nations alone, Justice officials said.