Criminal Alien Program Likely To Be Limited at New York City Jails

Rikers Island

Rikers Island. (Photo: Paul Lowry/flickr)

NEW YORK—The New York City Council appears set to pass a bill to significantly limit the number of immigrant prisoners transferred to federal custody through the Criminal Alien Program (CAP) before they are released from Rikers Island prison.

Passage would be a victory for immigrant advocates who oppose federal programs that have caught many undocumented immigrants accused of minor crimes in a system that federal authorities say is aimed at detaining and deporting immigrants who have committed major offenses. It would follow Gov. Cuomo’s suspension of Secure Communities in New York State earlier this year (though that turned out to be largely symbolic because Immigration and Customs Enforcement subsequently announced opting-out by the state wasn’t an option).

Sam Dolnick reported in the New York Times:

The bill would not end the practice, known as the criminal detainer program, in New York City. But it would prevent corrections officials from transferring inmates to federal custody, even immigrants in the United States illegally, if prosecutors declined to press charges against them, and if they had no convictions or outstanding warrants, had not previously been ordered deported and did not show up on the terrorist watch list.

As a result, the immigrants would be released if they were not defendants in criminal cases, regardless of whether federal officials wanted them deported.

The bill aims to prevent the deportation of non-criminals who wind up in city jails for one reason or another. The point of CAP is to ensure that criminal non-citizens are not released into the public, but critics say that many non-criminal immigrants end up getting caught up in the program’s dragnet and subsequently are deported.

According to Make The Road NY, an immigrant advocacy organization, “Of the inmates that were discharged from the Department of Corrections to the custody of ICE in 2010, 49.5 percent had no prior criminal conviction. Only 20.8 percent had a prior felony conviction and 20.6 percent had a misdemeanor as their highest prior conviction.”

“This piece of legislation ensures that law enforcement officials can continue to keep our neighborhoods safe without threatening their relationships with immigrant communities or needlessly separating immigrant families,” said Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito at a gathering to support the bill on Sunday.

“We need to stop needlessly and excessively deporting people who have had no prior criminal records, said Speaker Christine C. Quinn, who supports the bill.

CAP has become a particular point of contention in the past few years, as the number of deportations under the Obama administration has reached levels not seen since Eisenhower was in the White House.  These numbers are partially attributed to the expansion of cooperative programs between local and federal law enforcement. In August, the Obama administration signaled a change in policy to focus deportation efforts on “high priority” individuals, rather than a general wash of undocumented immigrants.

Until recently the fate of the bill, Intro 656, which is sponsored by Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito was uncertain. But on Friday, the Mayor’s office signaled its support, and that means it’s all but certain to become law.

AboutSarah Kate Kramer
Sarah Kate Kramer first got hooked on collecting stories as a StoryCorps facilitator, then traveled the world with a microphone for a few years before settling down in her hometown of New York City. From 2010-2012 she was the editor of Feet in 2 Worlds and a freelance reporter for WNYC Radio, where she created “Niche Market,” a weekly segment that profiled specialty stores in New York. Sarah is now a producer at Radio Diaries, a non-profit that produces documentaries for NPR and other public radio outlets.