Fox News used the supervised release of immigrants to fearmonger about public safety, ignoring the fact that the vast majority of released immigrants have no criminal conviction or that for those with aggravated felony convictions under immigration law can mean crimes that are neither aggravated nor considered a felony.
A Miami Herald article highlighting the release of immigrant detainees reported that 225 immigrants were released in the Miami deportation unit that includes Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands but remained under supervision.
Discussing the story on Fox News' Your World, host Neil Cavuto argued that the fact that some of the immigrants were considered "aggravated felons" contradicted the government's claim that no one released was dangerous. Conservative pundit Katie Pavlich of Townhall.com stated that the decision "shows a gross disregard for public safety," while falsely claiming that a third of the immigrants released had aggravated felony convictions.
In fact, as the Miami Herald reported, only two immigrants released in the Miami deportation unit had such convictions -- and the nature of their crimes was not divulged. Moreover, immigrants who have been convicted of such crimes are automatically subject to deportation, without a court hearing, and face the harshest penalties under immigration law -- which immigration experts argue are more severe than even criminal convictions.
As immigration expert David Leopold, General Council of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, explained to Media Matters, an aggravated felony under immigration law can include more than violent offenses like murder and sexual assault:
Determining whether a crime is an aggravated felony under the immigration law requires a confusing analysis of state and federal statutes and precedent court decisions. Some crimes, such as theft or assault, are considered aggravated felonies based of the length of the jail sentence imposed by a federal or state court -- even if the entire sentence is suspended.
Other crimes, such those involving fraud and deceit, are considered aggravated felonies if the amount of loss to the victim exceeds $10,000, whether or not the money has been paid back. A state controlled substance offense is considered an aggravated felony if it would be a felony under the federal law. States are sovereign political entities with their own set of civil and criminal laws.
Citing the example of a legal permanent resident married to an American woman and who has four American children, Leopold went on:
One evening after work the law abiding, taxpaying father goes to a local watering hole to have a beer with friends. He gets into a bar fight and is charged with assault, an offense punishable under state law for up to a year in prison. Since he has never had a brush with the law, and has otherwise led a stellar life, the judge imposes the maximum sentence -- a year in prison -- but suspends it and gives him probation. He is nevertheless an aggravated felon under the immigration law because he has been convicted of a crime of violence and sentenced to a year in prison.
It doesn't matter that he never spent a day in jail. He can expect to be arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents either outside the criminal courtroom or at his first probation meeting. ICE will charge him as deportable for conviction of an aggravated felony and hold him in mandatory detention without the opportunity to apply for a reasonable bond.
The Immigration Judge will conclude that his conviction subjects him to removal from the U.S. without the ability to apply for a reprieve -- a process formally known as cancellation of removal -- and will have no choice but to order him deported from the U.S. His only available relief is limited to withholding of deportation if he can prove is life will be in danger or he will be tortured if removed to his home country.
In a June 2006 report on aggravated felonies in immigration law, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data gathering and research organization at Syracuse University, noted that congressional legislation has "expanded the definition of aggravated felony several times" to include many crimes that "have been interpreted by federal courts to include misdemeanors, even though misdemeanors are generally meant to encompass less serious or dangerous acts than crimes traditionally designated as felonies."
An Immigration Policy Center fact-sheet on aggravated felonies shows that the definition "covers more than thirty types of offenses, including simple battery, theft, filing a false tax return, and failing to appear in court."
According to the Immigrant Defense Project, immigrants with so-called "aggravated felonies" have been convicted for such crimes as:
- Misdemeanor theft of a video game, valued at approximately $10
- The sale of $10 worth of marijuana
- Theft of a car radio with fellow teenage friends
- One woman pulling the hair of another during a fight over a boyfriend
- Shoplifting $15 worth of baby clothes
A wide range of groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have lobbied to restrict the definition of aggravated felonies under immigration law. The Obama administration immigration framework includes provisions that would reportedly "redefine an aggravated felony to encompass crimes that carry at least a five-year penalty" and "would require fraud offenses to result in at least $100,000 in losses for victims rather than the current $10,000 to be classified as aggravated felonies."
As Leopold said, the administration's proposal "will hopefully prevent the removal of long-term permanent residents who've committed minor offenses. Second, it would restore due process to the immigration courts by returning discretion to immigration judges -- which they had before the law was amended in 1997 -- to judge immigration cases on the merits, not simply apply a rigid set of statutes and regulations which fail to take into account [a] person's family ties, length of residence in the U.S., contributions to the community, and other equities."
Leopold added: "Clearly, any immigration overhaul should restore due process to the immigration law. A healthy dose of common sense wouldn't hurt either."