Immigration officials routinely fail to properly escort criminals out of the country, sometimes letting them fly alone on commercial flights, an internal investigation found.
The Department of Justice's inspector general said Thursday that escort standards were lax, despite revisions made three years ago to allay security fears.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service deports about 180,000 people a year. The review focused on criminals who in 1999 and 2000 were sent home on commercial flights to countries that do not border the United States. Some of those had just been released from U.S. prisons.
"The INS is placing the traveling public at potential risk because it does not consistently follow its own escort policy," Inspector General Glenn A. Fine wrote.
Murderers and rapists were among criminals allowed to travel without officers, he said, while others were escorted on flights out of America but not to their final destinations.
INS spokesman Bill Strassberger said the agency "shares the concerns of the inspector general and the public for in-flight safety and security."
"Wherever possible, we are moving aggressively to comply with the inspector general's recommendations and to make appropriate modifications to our escort policy," he said.
Investigators reviewed INS offices in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago and New York. Fine said sometimes, officers were not assigned to accompany criminals because of the costly international flights. He said there were also safety fears about traveling to some countries.
A majority of the criminals deported each year are from Mexico and are returned by bus. They accounted for about 21,000 of the 30,000 most dangerous criminal illegal immigrants sent home in 1999 and 2000, the report said.
The report involved only those who traveled by air to Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Central and South America and Europe.
INS official Michael D. Cronin said an agency restructuring was expected to include the creation of a department to ensure compliance with regulations.