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Debate Intensifies Over Deportations

Debate Intensifies Over Deportations

By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.

HOUSTON — The Obama administration is vastly expanding a federal effort begun under President George W. Bush to identify and deport illegal immigrants held in local jails. But here in the city where the effort got a trial start eight months ago, people on each side of the immigration debate have found fault with it.

Under the effort, known as Secure Communities, local officials check every set of fingerprints taken at jails against those of people who have had a brush with federal immigration authorities; in the past, they could check only for a criminal history in the F.B.I. database. If a person turns out to be an illegal immigrant, the case is turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for possible deportation proceedings in addition to the criminal charges.

The Obama administration considers the trial program successful enough to pledge $195 million over the next year to expand the effort with an eye toward establishing it nationwide by late 2012, when it is projected to cost about $1 billion a year. It is now under way in 70 counties across the country, including those containing the cities of San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, Miami and Durham, N.C.

“Before we had no idea who was deportable,” said Sheriff’s Deputy Gwen Carroll of Harris County, where Houston is located.

But the trial program’s experience here has raised difficult questions about its goals, critics say, and serves as a stern reminder of the political and practical challenges facing the larger rollout.

Federal officials say that while they are pleased with their new ability to identify illegal immigrants, they do not have enough agents to deport all of those identified. Over all, only a third of those identified in the first seven months of the program as foreign nationals — which includes people with visas and temporary residence cards as well as illegal immigrants — have been deported.

“We do have a limited amount of resources,” said David J. Venturella, the director of the federal program. “It’s our priority to focus on the more serious offenders.”

Proponents of stricter enforcement of immigration laws complain that by concentrating on people who pass through the jails, the government is letting too many other illegal immigrants off the hook. On the other side, advocacy groups for immigrants complain that the program has created a climate of fear and paranoia among Hispanics, hampering the police.

Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who favors stricter immigration enforcement, has said the focus on criminal offenders “will create a de facto amnesty” for the millions of illegal immigrants who do not have criminal records.

“We can prevent many of these crimes by deporting illegal immigrants before they have committed them, instead of waiting until after the fact,” he said, echoing the views of many hard-liners.

But Maria Jimenez, a longtime advocate for immigrants in Houston, said the Secure Communities program, along with a second federal program that allows certain local law enforcement officials to act as federal immigration agents, has done just what Mr. Smith and other conservatives want. “In casting the net so broadly,” she said, “it will be a de facto immigration enforcement program by local police.”

While federal officials say the purpose of the effort is to identify serious and violent criminals, immigrant advocates complain that the great majority of people deported so far under the trial program here were arrested for misdemeanor and nonviolent crimes.

In the first six months of the trial program in Harris County, the automatic fingerprint checks led to the deportation of 94 people accused of the highest level of felonies and 1,624 people accused of misdemeanors and various property crimes, federal officials said. In all, there were 5,300 matches with the immigration database.

“People are getting deported for even minor offenses like not having an ID or a driver’s license,” said Cesar Espinosa of America for All, a group that helps immigrants in Houston.

But what constitutes a minor offense is a matter of debate.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia of Harris County says he regards most of the people tagged for deportation as criminals, including those arrested for drunken driving and drug possession. Fewer than one in 10 have been charged with traffic offenses and other “Class C” misdemeanors under state law, Sheriff Garcia noted.

“We are taking people off the streets of Houston, off the streets of Harris County, who have indicated they are not interested in following the rules around here,” he said.

Support for deporting immigrants with criminal records grew in Houston after a city police officer, Rodney Johnson, was killed in 2006 by a felon who had been deported but returned. Last March, that sentiment reached a peak when a second officer, Rick Salter, was critically injured by an illegal immigrant with a criminal record.

On a recent morning, one young man who was arrested on charges of failing to provide information to the police slouched on a bench in the Harris County jail, while on the other side of a grate, Sheriff’s Deputy Sammie Rinehart scanned his immigration record.

A year ago, Deputy Rinehart said, it would have been nearly impossible to find out if he was in the country illegally because he had given officers a phony name. But after his fingerprints were taken using a computerized scanner and run through the government’s immigration database, they told a different story. He was really Carlos Bringas Nimrod, 22, of Mexico.

“I find about 10 to 12 names he’s used,” Deputy Rinehart said. “He’s got immigration charges — illegal entry. Most of his crimes have always been illegal entry.”

Mr. Bringas Nimrod was one of about 10 illegal immigrants the local police had locked up on misdemeanor charges that afternoon. One was Celio Velásquez, a 23-year-old construction worker from Honduras, who was accused of drunken driving and running over a volunteer firefighter with a car, making it necessary to amputate his legs.

Another was Jaime López, a 48-year-old Mexican citizen with a bloody bandage over one eye. He had been arrested on aggravated assault charges for the second time.

Jay K. Aiyer, a Houston immigration lawyer, said few people here disagree that dangerous criminals should be deported. But Mr. Aiyer said he had handled several cases in the last eight months in which illegal immigrants faced deportation proceedings after the state had dropped criminal charges.

But John T. Morton, the assistant secretary of homeland security in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, does not see the roundup of relatively harmless immigrants as a flaw.

“We are interested in identifying and removing all offenders if we can,” Mr. Morton said in an interview. “But we have limited resources, and in a world of limited resources we are focusing on violent serious offenders first.”

Few Options for Veterans Who Await Deportation

Few Options for Veterans Who Await Deportation

Some say their military service merits special consideration.

By Steve Liewer

Staff Writer

2:00 a.m. July 12, 2009

As a 7-year-old, Fernando Cervantes emigrated legally from Mexico to Texas with his mother in 1961.

At 18, in the waning days of the Vietnam War, he enlisted in the Army. Cervantes donned the khaki uniform, raised his right hand and swore to defend the Constitution.

“I thought it was my patriotic duty,” he said.

Thirty-two years after his honorable discharge, Cervantes is wearing the bright-orange shirt of a detainee at the El Centro Service Processing Center, where he has been held since the end of a three-year prison term last year for possession of methamphetamine for sale.

Barring an act of Congress, he will be deported to Mexico, a country he hasn’t visited since 1970. “I have no one in Mexico. Everything in my life is here,” said Cervantes, 55, of Victorville. “It’s very scary.”

About 32,000 foreign-born detainees await deportation at roughly 350 facilities nationwide – including the one in El Centro and another in Otay Mesa – operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or its contractors. An estimated 45 percent are legal residents who committed crimes ranging from murder to drug possession and were turned over to ICE after their prison terms.

No one has a reliable count of how many of them served in the U.S. armed forces. Rob Baker, field director of ICE’s San Diego office, ventured an estimate of half a percent, or fewer than 200 nationwide. Jan Ruhman of Rancho Bernardo, a Vietnam War vet who works with several anti-war groups, believes the figure is about 3,000.

Whatever the total, the deportation of veterans raises questions about the government’s responsibility to foreign-born noncitizens who have worn the uniform and, in some cases, shed blood in America’s defense.

Detained veterans believe they merit special consideration because of their military service. Some have sought out lawyers to press their case and have written letters to legislators, both to no avail.

“There’s people like me who will step up and defend this country,” said Rohan Coombs, 45, a Jamaica-born former Marine and Persian Gulf War veteran from Tustin who was stationed at Camp Pendleton for part of his six-year tenure.

He served time for drug crimes and is now at the El Centro facility.

“I’m not saying I’m a saint, but I think I deserve the right to stay here,” Coombs said.

Heather Boxeth, a San Diego attorney who handles criminal defense and immigration cases, is representing Coombs and another detained veteran for free.

“I’m not from a military family, and I’m not an Army brat,” she said. “But I thought there was something wrong with this.”

Plenty of people, though, said living in the United States is a privilege that foreigners forfeit with criminal behavior – even if they’re veterans.

“If they’ve not gotten citizenship, I have no qualms about deporting them,” said retired Marine Lt. Col. Tom Richards of Rancho Bernardo, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who heads the state’s Legion of Valor. “The moral of the story is, you shouldn’t become a convicted felon.”

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Lakeside, is an Iraq war veteran who has helped foreign-born Marines under his command become U.S. citizens. He said veterans who have committed crimes deserve due process, but no more.

“If the law says you get deported, then that’s what happens,” Hunter said.

Until 1996, the law subjected foreigners to deportation only for the most serious crimes and gave immigration judges wide latitude to consider special circumstances.

That year, as part of a broad revision of immigration laws, Congress expanded the list of aggravated felonies for which foreign-born residents can be deported and greatly limited judicial discretion.

The revised list includes murder, kidnapping, rape and other violent crimes as well as forgery, theft and possession of drugs with the intent to sell.

“It sounds really good: Let’s deport people who commit crimes. But usually, it’s not significant crimes,” said Army Reserve Lt. Col. Margaret Stock, an attorney in Alaska who volunteers with the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Military Assistance Program.

Most of the veterans facing deportation were convicted of drug possession, Stock and other lawyers said.

Coombs said he started smoking marijuana frequently after his wife, Pamela, died in 2001 from diabetes-related complications.

“It started out as something that helped me go to sleep,” said Coombs, former manager of a Frazee Paint store. “To support my habit, I started getting a little extra (to sell).” He has been arrested three times and imprisoned once for marijuana violations.

Cervantes, a journeyman carpenter, started using methamphetamine in the early 1980s while working two jobs to support his wife and two children.

Three times he has served jail terms of less than a year for producing, holding or selling drugs. A fourth conviction in 2006, for sale and possession of less than 1 gram of meth, landed him in state prison and, eventually, in El Centro.

“For all these years, I thought I was an American citizen” because of the military service, Cervantes said. “To say that I was surprised would be an understatement.”

As far back as the American Revolution, the military has relied on foreign-born troops to fill its ranks. Green-card holders always have been subject to the military draft.

The Pentagon has offered foreign-born residents a fast track to citizenship in times of war. But Coombs and Cervantes said they didn’t think that option was important because recruiters had told them they would automatically become citizens once they enlisted.

Their deportation cases drew outside attention after Coombs’ fiancee wrote an e-mail that found its way to Ruhman, the veterans advocate. He met with Coombs and, over time, learned that at least 10 veterans were among the 500 detainees at the El Centro facility.

“I support ’em because I’m a (expletive) Marine, and Marines don’t leave anyone behind,” Ruhman said. He contacted Boxeth, and the two have reached out to veterans advocates and human-rights lawyers around the country. They’re trying to assess how many other veterans are awaiting deportation.

So far, they haven’t had much luck. They must be invited by a detainee before being allowed onto the grounds of a detention facility.

Boxeth said the legal system offers little hope of stopping the deportations because judges have lost most of that authority.

ICE does give field-office directors the right to review veterans’ cases. Baker, whose region includes San Diego and Imperial counties, said he sees about 10 cases a year involving veterans. He said he has never stopped proceedings on a case solely because of someone’s military record.

“I admire their service to our country,” said Baker, who spent 23 years in the Air Force. “But I don’t think that service qualifies them for an amnesty.”

Boxeth said her strategy is to prolong her cases while lobbying legislators to change the law. She met this month with Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Filner could not be reached for comment. Boxeth said he has agreed to sponsor a “private bill” granting relief specifically to Cervantes, though congressional analysts said few of such measures pass.

Boxeth said Filner also is considering broader legislation that would give foreign-born service members and veterans – including those already deported – the same rights as noncitizen U.S. nationals, such as people born in certain U.S. territories and possessions.

The change would shield them from being deported or allow them to return to the United States if they have left.

“These are still people who fought in our wars,” Boxeth said. “I don’t think enough of the American public knows what’s going on.”

Link to video

Steve Liewer: (619) 542-4572
steve.liewer@uniontrib.com

In the Union-Tribune on Page A1

Reid Declares Immigration a Priority for Senate

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer

Saturday, June 6, 2009

With President Obama on a historic foreign trip, a Supreme Court nomination pending and massive health-care and climate change bills percolating in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) managed to draw headlines on a completely separate front Thursday: immigration.

At a news conference with Hispanic leaders to tout Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court candidacy, Reid said a comprehensive immigration bill is “going to happen this session, but I want it this year, if at all possible.” Reid called it one of his three top priorities this year, along with health care and energy.

His comments drew renewed attention to the immigration issue, which has been largely dormant on Capitol Hill since a comprehensive reform measure failed in the Senate in 2007. Despite the hopes of Reid and other advocates, however, with Congress and the White House preoccupied with a packed legislative calendar, immigration reform looks unlikely to pass this year.

House Democratic leaders have already said they want the Senate to move on immigration first, and the Senate can take weeks to process a major bill. Both chambers have to grapple with a full complement of issues this year, including the usual slate of appropriations bills as well as the health-care and energy measures, both of which will be controversial.

Brent Wilkes, the national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, was standing with Reid on Thursday and said he understands why Democrats are not committing to a firm timetable. “They’re cautious about the immigration bill, because things have a tendency to slip in Washington,” he said.

Last summer, candidate Barack Obama pledged on a LULAC questionnaire, “I will put comprehensive immigration reform back on the nation’s agenda during my first year in office.” The White House is hosting a meeting of key lawmakers and advocacy groups to discuss immigration June 17, but the administration has given no hint of an intensified push on the issue. Administration aides have said repeatedly that Obama wants to “start the debate this year,” but the president has not asked for a bill to sign in 2009.

Obama himself said in April, “We want to move this process,” before adding that he does not “have control of the legislative calendar.”

Reid does, and his spokesman, Jim Manley, said yesterday he thinks an immigration bill could pass the Senate this year, though he acknowledged the agenda is packed. “It’s an ambitious schedule, but it’s doable with a little bit of cooperation” from Republicans, he said.

But there is little evidence that such cooperation is forthcoming or that any consensus is forming around a compromise bill, so Republicans do not think moving a measure this year is realistic.

“The real estate is rapidly shrinking,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “Although we can always do more on border security, there are still a number of unresolved issues before the Congress that are going to take us well into the latter part of the year.”

Despite those obstacles, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he plans to draft and introduce a new immigration measure later this year. Wilkes said that would get the ball rolling, and that 2010 is a more likely target for final action on the issue.

“I think spring is realistic,” he said.

Immigration Benefits On The Hill

Immigration Benefits On The Hill

President Obama has scheduled an immigration summit at the White House on June 8th, less than two weeks away. This bipartisan summit will apparently feature key Congressional leaders, and is being promoted by the White House as “an opportunity to launch a policy conversation that we hope will be able to start a debate that will take place in Congress later in the year”. In the meanwhile, The Hill reports that “The Senate’s new math has put an overall immigration package within reach: At least 57 senators from both parties are likely to support a comprehensive approach, with another 7 on the fence.” With such reporting, one would think that immigration benefits are close to being in the bag. However, there is ample reason to be skeptical, here’s why.

The immigration issue is largely political, like almost all issues on the Hill. Unless there is compelling political reason to move one way or another, rarely does Congress act. In the Senate, Majority Leader Reid was the loudest voice a few months ago promoting early and aggressive action on immigration reform. He was then performing poorly in polls for his upcoming election battle in Nevada in 2010, and needed the immigrant vote badly. While he continues to perform poorly in the polls, a credible Republican challenger has failed to materialize – his insistence on tackling immigration early has muted accordingly. In the House, while a major immigration benefits bill likely waits in the wings for an opportune moment, the Democratic leadership has thus far not moved the legislative calendar on CIR. The White House has, for its part, made clear that immigration has to wait for its turn behind health care reform, climate change, education and tax policy. Whether any oxygen would remain in the legislative air for the balance of this year for immigration is an open question. Observing the executive branch actions so far, Mr. Emmanuel’s deft political fingerprints are plain to see – plenty of hot air, very little real ameliorative action. ICE and CBP continue ham-handed enforcement, and “the Culture of No” is just as firmly ensconced at USCIS, DOS and DOL as it was under the Bush administration. We suspect that as Mr. Obama’s sky-high approval ratings slowly return to earth, his staff’s interest in immigration will rise in tandem. In a nutshell, immigration reform on the Hill is far from a done deal.

So, what’s the bottom line? Our view is colored by institutional and procedural matters on the Hill (not by any secret sources, nor by any private exchanges with specific persons on the Hill). We believe that immigration benefits have a fair chance of getting enacted based on the fact that Democrats enjoy near-record majorities at this time, when the Republicans have, thru their reflexive opposition, temporarily made major immigration benefits a partisan issue. If large scale benefits are not enacted now, we cannot imagine many more likely moments in the coming years. Since most immigrants cant vote (except for those who are already naturalized), our politicians do not pay much of a political price to postpone action on all kinds of pretexts. However, permitting the status quo of millions of undocumented Americans is no way to run a railroad, or a country. We urge Congress to get moving, and soon.

We welcome readers to share their opinion and ideas with us by writing to editor@ilw.com This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

3 California Counties Will Check Immigration Status as Inmates Enter Jail

The effort is part of a national program to run the inmates’ fingerprints through federal databases. Illegal immigrants may then be deported after being convicted and serving their sentences.

By Anna Gorman – LA Times
6:01 PM PDT, May 13, 2009

Los Angeles, Ventura and San Diego will become the first counties in California to begin checking the immigration status of all inmates booked into jail as part of a national effort to identify and deport more illegal immigrants with criminal records.

Law enforcement officials in the three counties will begin running inmates’ fingerprints through federal databases this month to see if they have had any contact with the immigration system. Immigration officials will place holds on those believed to be in the country illegally. Once the inmates have finished serving their sentences, they will be transferred to immigration custody for possible deportation.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement earlier launched the program — dubbed Secure Communities — in 48 counties in seven states and plans to expand it to all jails and prisons by the end of 2012. Congress has allocated $350 million for the program in fiscal years 2008 and 2009. President Obama asked Congress last week for a 30% increase in federal funds for next year.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said during recent testimony before Congress that Secure Communities “gives our state and local partners a powerful tool to identify criminal aliens in their custody.”

David Venturella, executive director of Secure Communities for the federal immigration agency, said the program is much more accurate than the previous system because all inmates — not just those who say they are foreign-born — are screened for immigration status. Convicted felons who have multiple aliases or have lied about being born in the U.S. are being identified under the new program, he said.

“We are finding those individuals, and they are not getting out,” he said.

Law enforcement officers already had access to the immigration databases, but the computer screening will now automatically take place as part of the booking process.

Not everybody identified, convicted and transferred to federal custody will be deported right away, however. Venturella said the federal government will prioritize illegal immigrants who pose a threat to public safety, including those convicted of murder, rape, robbery or kidnapping.

And despite the improvements, Venturella said the system could still miss illegal immigrants who have never had any contact with the immigration system. He said that’s where the actual screeners come in. “Human resources can be focused on the ones who we don’t have any records on,” he said.

For example, Secure Communities probably wouldn’t have led to the identification of illegal immigrant Pedro Espinoza, suspected of killing high school football player Jamiel Shaw II after being released from Los Angeles County Jail. Espinoza had not had contact with the immigration system in the past, officials said.

Earlier this week, Shaw’s family sued the Sheriff’s Department for negligence and wrongful death. Espinoza said during booking that he was born in the U.S., according to sheriff’s officials.

The department began working with federal immigration agents in 2006 to screen inmates, but officials said the new program will help keep people from slipping through the cracks.

“There is another layer of screening going on,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Kevin Kuykendall. “It’s another tool to increase our effectiveness and make sure we get to everyone we need to get to.”

More than 40 police agencies throughout Los Angeles County will participate in the new program, enabling law enforcement to screen every inmate booked at any local facility, immigration officials said.

In some cases, immigration agents may arrest an inmate who has been released — on bail or after an acquittal, for example — if the person is an illegal immigrant and has a prior criminal record.

County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who lobbied the federal government to bring the program to Los Angeles, said its implementation will make the county safer and save money.

“County taxpayers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars housing and supporting criminal aliens who have broken the law to be here,” he said. “They need to be deported.”

But Ahilan Arulanantham, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said there need to be safeguards so inmates aren’t incorrectly placed on immigration holds based on a database that could contain errors.

“There has got to be some kind of human training and understanding and procedures in place so that there is someone who knows enough immigration law to interpret this data correctly,” he said.

anna.gorman@latimes.com

Man Who Spent 22 Years on Death Row is Cleared

By Bill Mears
CNN Supreme Court Producer

WASHINGTON (CNN) — A former death row inmate in Tennessee has been cleared of murder, three years after the Supreme Court raised repeated questions about his conviction.

After 22 years on death row, Paul House was released on bail and has now been cleared of murder charges.

State prosecutors on Tuesday asked a judge to drop all charges against Paul House, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to die in 1986. Special Judge Jon Blackwood accepted the request.

House had been scheduled to be executed next month for the 1985 murder of Carolyn Muncey. He had been on death row for 22 years but was released on bail last year. He has multiple sclerosis and must use a wheelchair.

The high court ruled in June 2006 that House was entitled to a new hearing.

“Although the issue is closed, we conclude that this is the rare case where — had the jury heard all the conflicting testimony — it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror viewing the record as a whole would lack reasonable doubt,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the 5-3 majority.

House’s appeal was championed by the Innocence Project, affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law in New York.

“In the three years since the U.S. Supreme Court stepped into this case and sent it back to the trial court, substantial additional DNA testing and further investigation have shown that he is innocent,” said Peter Neufeld, the group’s co-director. “Each time a layer of this case was peeled away, it revealed more evidence of Paul House’s innocence.”

Muncey disappeared from her rural Luttrell, Tennessee, home on July 13, 1985. Her body was found a day later, badly beaten and showing signs of a struggle. She had been raped.

House, who was on parole at the time as a sex offender, was questioned by police. He denied any involvement in the crime. He was a friend of Muncey’s husband, but claimed he was in his own house several miles away the evening of the murder. But prosecutors found a hole in his alibi, discovering that he had left his home the night of the murder and returned about an hour later with unexplained cuts and bruises.

Forensic evidence found Muncey’s blood on House’s jeans, but questions were later raised whether the samples were contaminated en route to an FBI lab for analysis.

Subsequent state-of-the art DNA testing conducted after the conviction showed semen on the victim belonged to her husband, not House. Blood under her fingernails and cigarette butts discovered near the wooded crime scene also did not match the accused.

But prosecutors maintain other evidence points to his guilt. Muncey’s family has also continued to believe House was involved in the crime.

In a 2005 interview, House told CNN he did not rape or kill Muncey, and he wondered why he was still on death row.

“I guess that’s the million-dollar question,” he said. While maintaining his innocence, he said lying to police about his whereabouts that night was a big mistake.

Kennedy, in his 2006 high court ruling, offered an extensive summary of the facts of the investigation, especially the DNA evidence, which he said might point to “a different suspect.” Kennedy said jurors might conclude Muncey’s blood found on House’s pants may have inadvertently spilled there during the autopsy, or through mishandling by police at the crime scene.

District Attorney Paul Phillips wrote in his petition this week that he still believes House could have been convicted again in a new trial, “but the new evidence (including the forensic examinations) raises a reasonable doubt that he acted alone and the possibility that others were involved in the crime.”

But Phillips noted the “substantial sentence” House has already served as another reason for the charges being dropped now.

Army Extends Immigrant Recruiting

Pilot program seeks to boost the ranks of language and healthcare specialists by offering citizenship.
By Alexandra Zavis and Andrew Becker
May 4, 2000 Los Angeles Times

The lanky 19-year-old from South Korea has lived in the Southland since he was 9 years old. He is as comfortable speaking English as his native Korean. And he desperately wants to join the Army.

Late last week, the teenager walked into a recruiting office in an Eagle Rock mall wearing a pendant shaped like a dog tag around his neck. Until recently, local recruiters would have had to turn him away. His student visa would not have qualified him to enlist. Only citizens or permanent residents who carry green cards were eligible to serve.

But starting today, 10 Los Angeles-area Army recruiting offices will begin taking applications from some foreigners who are here on temporary visas or who have been granted asylum.

In all, the pilot program, which was launched in New York in February, seeks to enlist 1,000 military recruits with special language and medical skills, most of whom will join the Army. Response to the program has exceeded expectations, drawing applications from more than 7,000 people around the country, many of them highly educated, defense officials said.

Those who are accepted will get an expedited path to citizenship in return for their service. “Ever since I entered high school, I was waiting for this opportunity,” Jason, the 19-year-old aspiring soldier, told recruiters as they helped him prepare documents to submit today. “As soon as it came, I just jumped.”

The Army requested that applicants’ full names not be used because, in some cases, it could put them or family members at risk in their home countries.

Although the Army has been meeting or exceeding its recruiting goals, defense officials say there is a shortage of soldiers with medical, foreign language and cultural abilities needed in the war on terror and peacekeeping efforts around the world.

“What we’re looking for are critical, vital skills,” said Naomi Verdugo, assistant deputy for recruiting in the office of the assistant secretary of the Army.

The Army hopes to enlist 333 healthcare professionals, including doctors, dentists, nurses and others. It is also looking for 557 people with any of 35 languages, including Arabic and Yoruba, spoken in West Africa. Spanish is not on the list. An additional 110 slots are earmarked for other services, which have not yet started taking applications for the program.

Although the effort is limited in scope, it has raised concerns among some veterans groups and advocates for tighter immigration controls. They question whether the policy shift could pave the way for large numbers of foreigners, including ones who might have entered the U.S. illegally, to join the armed services.

“By aggressively recruiting foreigners abroad, or illegal immigrants who could use such a program to get legalized, we could easily create a situation where the Pentagon comes to rely on cheap foreign labor,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

“That’s not where we are now. . . . But we always need to be careful that we don’t start going down a steep, slippery slope.”

Defense officials emphasize that the program is only open to foreigners who have lived legally in the U.S. for at least two years, including students, some professionals and refugees.

Those who enlist are required to meet the same physical and conduct standards as other recruits and exceed the educational standards. They are also vetted by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, and they will not be granted waivers for any criminal offenses.

Foreign-born residents have a long history in the U.S. armed forces.

Under a wartime statute invoked in 2002, those who serve can apply for citizenship on the first day of active duty. Naturalization fees are waived. About 29,000 people with green cards are in the military and about 8,000 enlist each year, according to Pentagon figures.

Recruiters have already signed up 105 people with targeted languages and two medical professionals under the new program.

More than 60% of those enlisting under the pilot program have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with roughly 7% of those joining the Army through regular channels.

Their average score on a required math and verbal aptitude test is 79 out of a possible 99 points. That’s compared with 62 for the average citizen or permanent resident who enlisted in the Army in the 12 months ending in September.

As word of the New York pilot program spread, many people traveled across the country to apply.

The 107 enlisted so far include 13 California residents, officials said. Less than half came from the New York area, including New Jersey.

Jason was among those who traveled to New York. But he arrived so tired after an overnight flight that he failed to score the minimum 50 points on a sample aptitude test.

By extending the program to Los Angeles, Army officials hope to make it easier for applicants on the West Coast to be considered and to ease the pressure on New York recruiters.

They also want to reach a broader range of language experts. So far, most of the recruits have been Korean, Indian and Chinese language speakers. The Army needs more people with languages used in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, among others. Only four of the recruits enlisted as Arabic speakers, one speaks Urdu and one speaks Punjabi.

Staff Sgt. Joshua Cannon, who commands the recruiting station where Jason is applying, is pleased to be able to sign up more aspiring Americans. The policy restricting applications to people with green cards has been a source of frustration to local recruiters, who have struggled for years to find qualified applicants in a city with many immigrants, especially when the country is at war.

Cannon said his office had been getting calls about the new program for months. For most of the callers, the biggest draw is the chance to become citizens in as little as six months, he said. The normal naturalization process can take five to 15 years.

To retain their citizenship, participants must honorably complete at least five years of service.

When Jason heard he could apply closer to home, he headed straight over. This time he scored a respectable 67 on the sample aptitude test.

After 10 years of living with the uncertainty of temporary visas, he too is hoping to finally become an American.

His mother, who raised two children alone, never bothered to apply for green cards for the family, so now he faces the possibility of being summoned back to South Korea for mandatory military service.

Jason is also looking for a way to complete his studies at Pasadena City College.

His mother’s grocery store is struggling, so he had to defer for two semesters after his first year to help keep the business going. Although his mother worries that Jason could be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, he will not be dissuaded.

“I would have to go to the army in Korea anyway, so let’s make it count for something,” he said. “A new life. A new beginning.”

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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This story was reported and written in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, a nonprofit news organization. Andrew Becker is a CIR staff reporter. Alexandra Zavis is a Times staff writer.

Obama Budget Puts Security First at the Border

He’ll ask Congress to help curb the flow of arms to Mexico before seeking any immigration reform.
By Anna Gorman and Peter Nicholas
May 6, 2009

Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles — President Obama will ask Congress for $27 billion for border and transportation security in the next budget year, fulfilling a promise to the Mexican government to battle the southbound flow of illegal weapons and setting the stage for immigration reform by first addressing enforcement, administration officials said Tuesday.

The spending, an 8% increase over this year’s, will enable the administration to hire more agents and enhance security at air- and seaports. Obama also will request more money to expand screening for illegal immigrants in jail and to improve a Web-based program for verifying workers’ employment eligibility.

Illegal immigrant concentrations in U.S.

The funding requests are part of the 2010 budget Obama plans to present to Congress on Thursday. Legislators last week passed a $3.5-trillion budget blueprint that tracks Obama’s major policy goals, including a healthcare overhaul and a push for renewable energy sources.

The border and immigration budget underscores differences with the Bush administration, which emphasized border fence construction, increased detention space and more teams to raid work sites. Obama has already changed the game on work-site enforcement, giving immigration agents new guidelines that shift the emphasis from illegal workers to employers who break the law by hiring them.

In devoting more money to security and enforcement, Obama may be creating some political space needed to revamp the immigration system. The president risks alienating many conservatives if he doesn’t emphasize strong border and immigration enforcement before taking action on a reform package that would create a path to legalization for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

“If the American people don’t feel like you can secure the borders,” Obama said during a prime-time news conference last week, “then it’s hard to strike a deal that would get people out of the shadows and on a pathway to citizenship who are already here, because the attitude of the average American is going to be, ‘Well, you’re just going to have hundreds of thousands of more coming in each year.’ ”

Administration officials, who laid out the priorities for border and immigration enforcement Tuesday, said they wanted to use technology and personnel to help secure the Southwest border and to help battle Mexican drug cartels responsible for widespread violence that threatens to spill into the U.S.

More than 7,600 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico since January 2008.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday that the budget “clearly demonstrates the president’s commitment to a smart and effective immigration policy.”

“We are continuing to focus on tightening our borders and stronger enforcement, and this budget gives us essential new resources and tools to do just that,” she said.

During his visit to Mexico last month, Obama said the U.S. would do more to stop the weapons that have found their way from the U.S. to Mexican drug cartels.

Standing next to Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Obama said: “This war is being waged with guns purchased not here, but in the United States. . . . So we have responsibilities as well. We have to do our part. We have to crack down on drug use in our cities and towns. We have to stem the southbound flow of guns and cash.”

Specifically, the budget doubles Department of Homeland Security funding to nearly $47 million to combat southbound firearms and currency smuggling, and adds more than 100 Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officers.

An additional $70 million will allow the federal government to hire 349 agents and investigators to work with the Mexican government on developing intelligence to better fight the cartels.

The budget includes an 18% increase for the Department of Justice’s Southwest Border Initiative, which targets the violence fueled by the drug cartels.

The budget plan also calls for a 12% fiscal boost to the Transportation Security Administration, allocating $985 million at airports, $250 million at seaports and $1.9 billion for the Coast Guard. Much of the money will be spent on new technologies and additional security personnel.

Asked about Obama’s pledge to change the immigration system, an administration official said Tuesday: “Enforcement has to be part of the equation. If the goal here is to get an immigration system that functions, enforcement is central to that.”

Among the immigration enforcement priorities, the budget increases funding by 30% to nearly $200 million to enable the Department of Homeland Security to hire 80 new people to identify criminal immigrants in the jails and prisons for deportation.

Obama also wants to spend $112 million, a 12% increase, to make E-Verify, an employment verification program, more reliable and to get more employers to use it.

The emphasis on border security isn’t a surprising first step by the administration, said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank.

“It’s a no-brainer that he is going to want to spend a lot of resources and build muscle at the border,” she said.

But she said that Obama shouldn’t stop there.

“The second chapter,” she said, “better be looking to Congress and being in the driver’s seat, both publicly and behind closed doors, driving a legislative package successfully.”

anna.gorman@latimes.com

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

Reopening of Green Card Cases

By: The Associates Press – Published: May 2, 2009

A federal judge in Los Angeles has ordered the government to reopen the immigration cases of dozens of foreign widows whose American-citizen spouses died before the women could get their green cards. The judge, Christina A. Snyder, ruled that the Department of Homeland Security could not deny the widows’ applications to remain in the United States legally because the agency did not process the paperwork before their spouses died. The ruling paves the way for the widows in Western states to have their applications for green cards reopened. The Citizenship and Immigration Service has argued that the law requires that residency applications be rejected for immigrants whose American spouses die within two years of marriage.