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Suspects Chafing in Ankle Monitors

Some see as unfair a pilot program using the devices to keep tabs on possible deportees.

June 21, 2005|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

One morning last fall, Juan Chavez awoke to pounding on his door. Immigration agents had come looking for someone else, but when Chavez couldn't prove he was in the country legally, they arrested him.

They released him several hours later, but only after attaching an electronic band to his ankle to make sure he didn't flee the area. The San Jose resident wore the anklet for 10 weeks, concealed beneath one of his cowboy boots.

"I'm not a criminal," said Chavez, 41, who crossed the Mexican border and settled in this country 14 years ago. "They should put them on the people who commit big crimes."

Whether his offenses are considered big or small, Chavez broke the law when he paid a coyote $600 to guide him into the United States through the mountains east of San Diego and got job after job in Northern California without the required work permits.

The anklet is to keep the government from losing track of him.

The problem of illegal immigration may begin at the border, but it doesn't end there. Millions of undocumented immigrants are living and working in U.S. communities, with little risk of being found out. Among those discovered and ordered to appear at deportation hearings, 30% don't show up. And among those ordered deported, 85% disappear if they are not detained.

"The nation's immigration system is largely based on personal integrity," said Manny Van Pelt, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "We have seen that the honor system does not work."

The electronic anklet is one possible solution, albeit an experimental -- and controversial -- one.

Chavez and about 1,400 immigrants, most of whom normally would have been released on bond or on their own recognizance, are donning electronic anklets traditionally reserved for accused or convicted felons, not suspected border violators.

They are part of a pilot project started last summer in eight U.S. cities after Congress set aside funds to create alternatives to detention. The devices do not constantly track immigrants' movements but are programmed to notify authorities if they stray from assigned curfews.

Some immigrant rights groups bristle at the approach.

"It's treating them the way we in society treat criminals," said Anamaria Loya, executive director of La Raza Centro Legal in San Francisco. "It's punitive to limit someone's freedom that way."

Immigration officials say they had to do something to reduce the number of fugitives.

"It is a violation of the law to enter the United States illegally," Van Pelt said. "It is a violation of the law to ignore the judge's order. It is a crime."

But locking every illegal immigrant up would be expensive, unpopular, and, at this point, impossible. Though more than 1 million immigrants are going through deportation proceedings nationwide, there is room to detain only about 20,000 -- and the beds are usually reserved for convicted felons and others considered a national security or public safety risk.

The anklets save bed space and money. Nationwide, detention costs about $75 per person a day, compared with $25 per person a day for the pilot program.

In fact, the anklets are just one of several technological options the government has tried. Others include a computerized voice-recognition system that requires immigrants to call in regularly from specific phone numbers, and Global Positioning System satellite tracking of immigrants involved in deportation proceedings.

The debate does not always follow the predictable lines of immigration politics.

Some immigration defense attorneys praise the use of electronic monitors, saying they are better than high bail amounts or lengthy detention.

"It's better to be outside with a bracelet around your ankle than behind bars," said San Francisco attorney Donald Ungar.

Some opponents of illegal immigration are skeptical of the program, saying the anklets cannot and should not replace detention. The government should be very careful, they say, about whom it releases.

"How effective are these monitors?" said Ron Prince, co-author of Proposition 187, the California initiative that sought to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants. "Lots of people are wearing ankle bracelets who are disappearing. That's no guarantee."

While most of those given anklets are not felons, some have been convicted of crimes.

Nigerian immigrant Iyabo Williams served 14 years in federal prison for conspiring to deal drugs. When she finished her sentence in November, immigration agents took her into custody under a law that requires the deportation of immigrants convicted of certain offenses.

Williams, 45, decided to fight deportation, saying there was nothing left for her in Nigeria. Her husband and three children live in Oakland. Immigration agents gave her a choice pending the outcome of her case: stay locked up or go home with an electronic anklet.

She chose the anklet.

"That was my ticket out," she said. "That ankle bracelet brought me home to my family."

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