Maricopa County, Az. jail inmates convicted or cleared of human-smuggling charges and presumed to be undocumented were allowed to walk out of jail without being removed from the U.S. in a spat between the Sheriff’s Office and federal immigration agents, reports the Arizona Republic. Since the first arrests under Arizona’s human-smuggling law in March, Phoenix prosecutors have has filed 268 cases, 31 against suspected coyotes and the rest against suspected conspirators assumed to be undocumented immigrants. So far, 63 have pleaded guilty to lesser offenses, 15 have been dismissed, two acquitted and one convicted by a jury. But 17 have walked out of jail – including six who pleaded guilty to human-smuggling felonies – because the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement decided it wouldn’t transport out of the country people prosecuted under the controversial coyote law. They slipped unnoticed through the red tape of a giant jail system and onto the streets.
ICE says that only federal agents are legally empowered to determine who is a citizen and who is in the country legally, which they do through specific interviews and checks. Maricopa County prosecutor Andrew Thomas said that “ICE’s refusal to pick up and deport acknowledged illegal immigrants arrested by local law enforcement shows that the federal policy of ‘catch and release’ is still the order of the day.” The Sheriff’s Office said there are an average of 900 to 1,000 prisoners in the jail at any one time with immigration detainers, or holds, indicating that ICE is to be contacted before they can be released.