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Immigration and Naturalization Service Institutional Removal Program

Report No. 02-41
September 2002
Office of the Inspector General


The Institutional Removal Program (IRP) is a national program that aims to (1) identify removable criminal aliens in federal, state, and local correctional facilities, (2) ensure that they are not released into the community, and (3) remove them from the United States upon completion of their sentences. Aliens convicted of certain offenses or unlawfully present in the United States are subject to deportation. The IRP process ideally begins with the identification of potentially deportable foreign-born inmates as they enter the correctional system and culminates in a hearing before an immigration judge at a designated hearing site within the federal, state, or local prison system. Upon completion of their sentences, deportable aliens are then released into INS custody for immediate removal. The IRP is a cooperative effort of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), and participating federal, state, and local correctional agencies. According to INS statistics, of the 71,063 criminal aliens the INS removed in FY 2001, 30,002 were removed via the IRP.

Our audit focused primarily on the IRP process at the state and local level because of the inherent difficulties faced by the INS in coordinating with non-federal agencies. We assessed whether the INS: (1) effectively managed the IRP and, in particular, how well the INS handled the impact of legislative changes enacted in 1996 on the IRP workload; (2) identified all foreign-born inmates in state or local custody; and whether deportable criminal aliens not identified by the INS went on to commit other crimes after being released from incarceration; and (3) incurred detention costs due to failures in the IRP process and the causes underlying those failures. To achieve these objectives, we reviewed applicable laws, regulations, manuals, and memoranda; interviewed INS personnel responsible for the IRP; and tested the IRP process by examining a nationwide judgmentally selected sample of A-files of removable criminal aliens. We also observed and analyzed the IRP process in two states and in two counties within each of those states. We reviewed 545 judgmentally selected files of inmates identified as foreign-born by state or local officials at the California Department of Corrections (DOC), the Florida DOC, and local jail facilities in Fresno County, California; Kern County, California; Broward County, Florida; and Dade County, Florida.1

We found that the INS has not effectively managed the IRP. The INS has yet to determine the nationwide population of foreign-born inmates, particularly at the county level. Without this information, the INS cannot properly quantify the resources the IRP needs to fully identify and process all deportable inmates. Even if the INS were unable to fully fund the needs of the IRP, the INS should know the universe of foreign-born inmates to identify shortfalls in coverage and be able to assess the associated risks, which it currently is unable to do.

The INS has not been able to keep pace with the increases in the IRP workload resulting from sweeping changes in immigration law brought about by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. These laws expanded the definition of aggravated felony and eliminated relief for legal resident aliens convicted of aggravated felonies, dramatically increasing the number of criminal aliens eligible for removal, and thus the IRP workload. Despite the foreseeable impact of the legislation, we found little evidence to indicate that management had taken steps to address the increased workload, particularly at the county level. Indeed, the number of criminal aliens deported actually decreased in FY 2001, albeit slightly, from FY 2000 totals, even as the total prison population grew by 1.6 percent during the same period. Staffing levels for the IRP were not increased. In fact, staffing levels decreased because of INS-wide chronic vacancies in the immigration agent (IA) position, the backbone of the IRP.

Exacerbating the problems of stagnant resources, an increasing workload, and chronic vacancies in IRP positions, INS employees assigned to the IRP may be redirected, at district management's discretion, to any one of several competing priorities. We found that immigration agents assigned to the IRP were often detailed to assist with other program activities, such as employer sanctions, anti-smuggling, and fraud. While the reallocation of resources is not unique to the IRP, it is particularly crippling to IRP operations given the districts' difficulty in maintaining staffing levels.

We found IRP coverage (i.e. interviews of foreign-born inmates to determine deportability) at the county level minimal to nonexistent. We observed this first hand at the county facilities we visited in California and Florida. INS officials acknowledged that the lack of coverage at the county level was widespread. Although state coverage in FY 1999 and FY 2000 was adequate, we found IRP coverage in California, which ranks first in the number of foreign-born inmates held in state custody, in decline in FY 2001. The INS failed to interview, and therefore identify, 19 percent of foreign-born inmates at state prison intake facilities throughout California in FY 2001. Initial figures for the first quarter of FY 2002 indicate that the coverage is worsening, resulting in backlogs of foreign-born inmates requiring interviews. The declining coverage at the state prisons is due, in part, to the fact that California has done little to help the INS streamline the IRP process beyond the initial program enhancements implemented in 1995. As a result, INS agents must maintain an active presence at 11 intake facilities dispersed throughout the state over an area roughly 120,000 square miles in size. In contrast, Texas funnels all foreign-born inmates through one intake facility. Chronic vacancies in the INS immigration agent position have further exacerbated INS efforts in maintaining coverage of state facilities in California.

The whole IRP process is predicated on the cooperation of the institutions in which criminal aliens are incarcerated. Without that cooperation, the IRP cannot function effectively. Interestingly, states and counties throughout the country have received hundreds of millions in funding annually through the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program2 (SCAAP), yet there are no provisions in the program requiring state and county recipients to cooperate with the INS in its removal efforts.

We found that the INS did not always timely process IRP cases, and as a result, has been forced to detain criminal aliens released from incarceration into INS custody to complete deportation proceedings. In order to determine the causes for IRP-related detention costs, we reviewed a judgmental sample of 151 A-files of criminal aliens in INS custody, which included criminal aliens released from federal, state, and local correctional facilities throughout the country. In addition, we interviewed INS officials at all levels, as well as officials at the EOIR, the General Accounting Office, and the Department of State. For our sample of 151 files, we identified a total of $2.3 million in IRP-related detention costs, of which $1.1 million was attributable to failures in the IRP process within the INS's control, and $1.2 was related to factors beyond the INS's immediate control. Failures in the IRP process included (1) incomplete or inadequate casework; (2) untimely requests for travel documents; (3) failure to accommodate for delays in the hearing process; (4) failure to timely initiate and complete IRP casework; and (5) use of inappropriate removal procedures. Factors beyond the INS's control included (1) countries that, through design or incompetence, delay the issuance of travel documents; and (2) countries that refuse to take back their citizens. INS-wide, the detention costs associated with these breakdowns in the process may be significant. According to INS statistics, the average daily population for criminal aliens held in INS custody was over 10,000 in FY 2001, accounting for over half of the INS's available bed space. The INS indicated that the overwhelming majority of these criminal aliens were federal, state, or local inmates that were released into INS custody for removal. Under ideal conditions, an effectively operating IRP would preclude the need for INS detention in such instances. Based on this unaudited data, total IRP-related detention costs could run as high as $200 million annually.

To address the problems cited in the report, we recommend that the INS Commissioner take the following action:

Our audit objectives, scope, and methodology appear in Appendix I. The details of our work are contained in the Findings and Recommendations section.


  1. For the California DOC and the Florida DOC, we reviewed 172 and 196 inmate files, respectively. As for the counties, we reviewed 75 total foreign-born inmate files for California (Fresno and Kern counties) and 102 for Florida (Dade and Broward counties).
  2. SCAAP is a Department of Justice grant program established to help state and local governments defray the cost of incarcerating criminal aliens. The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) administers the program. According to BJA statistics, SCAAP funds for FY 2000 and FY 2001 totaled $1.1 billion.