They were among the nation’s top priorities for deportation, criminals who were supposed to be sent back to their home countries. But instead they were released, one by one, in secret across the United States. Federal officials said that many of the criminals posed little threat to the public, but did little to verify whether that was true.
A Globe review of 323 criminals released in New England from 2008 to 2012 found that as many as 30 percent committed new offenses, including rape, attempted murder, and child molestation — a rate that is markedly higher than Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have suggested to Congress in the past.
The names of these criminals have never before been made public and are coming to light now only because the Globe sued the federal government for the list of criminals immigration authorities returned to neighborhoods across the country. A judge ordered the names released in 2013, and the Globe then undertook the work that the federal government didn’t, scouring court records to find out how many released criminals reoffended.
The Globe has also published, in conjunction with this story, a searchable database of the thousands of names that were disclosed to the news organization, so that crime victims, law enforcement officials, and managers of sex offender registries — who are often unaware of these releases — can find out if the criminals may still be in the United States.
The review does not indicate that immigrants are any more likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans — and in fact studies have shown that not to be the case. But the review reveals the damage inflicted on victims by criminals who were ordered to be deported when their sentences were complete, and were not, and it raises questions about how the government handled their cases.
The public rarely learns about ICE’s decisions to release criminals until something goes wrong — because immigration is the only law enforcement system in the United States that keeps such records secret.
ICE maintains that immigration records are generally private, and therefore exempt from disclosure under federal law. But others say the public should know who is making these decisions and why.
“There’s a serious question of who ICE represents. Who do they work for?” said Chester Fairlie, a lawyer for the mother of Casey Chadwick, a Connecticut woman murdered last year by a released criminal — a case that is intensifying calls for reform in ICE. “Public safety should trump any claim of privilege or confidentiality. It doesn’t come from statute. It doesn’t come from law. It comes from ICE deciding that that’s how it’s going to do things.”
Immigration officials have long insisted that the decision to release criminals — some of whom initially came to this country legally — is often out of their hands because the Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that the government cannot jail immigrants indefinitely. If immigration officials cannot deport them after six months, the court said, they should generally set them free.
“So to sit there and say that the proud women and men of law enforcement in ICE are choosing to release criminals is absolutely unforgivable,” ICE Director Sarah Saldaña told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in April, after lawmakers grilled her about releasing criminals in the United States. “And they do not go around trying to put criminals on the street.”
But often, that’s where they end up.
The Globe found that a Massachusetts man was supposed to be deported after he served jail time for bashing his ex-girlfriend on the head with a hammer — but ICE released him in October 2009. Three months later, he found the ex-girlfriend and stabbed her repeatedly. A Rhode Island man who had served prison time for a home invasion was also released from immigration detention in 2009; five years later, he was arrested for attacking his former girlfriend. In 2010, ICE released a man with a lengthy criminal record in Maine; a few months later he grabbed a man outside a 7-Eleven, held a knife to the man’s throat, and robbed him.
Some members of Congress appear to be losing patience with ICE’s argument that it is powerless to stop these releases. Critics say ICE could seek civil commitment for mentally ill immigrants who commit crimes, arrest reoffenders, and ask the Department of State to use diplomatic means to punish nations such as Haiti, China, and Jamaica when they refuse to take back their own citizens.
At the House oversight hearing on April 28, committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, said ICE’s decisions to release criminals who can’t be deported are leading to thousands of preventable crimes, according to ICE’s own statistics. The recent reoffenses include more than 130 murders or attempted murders since 2010, according to a letter ICE provided in February to Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
“What’s going on with Immigration and Customs Enforcement is one of the most infuriating things I think I’ve seen in this government yet,” Chaffetz said. To Saldaña, he added, after referring to crime victims in these cases, “How do you look those people in the eye?”
The Globe’s review was limited to the 323 immigrants released in New England between 2008 and 2012.
To calculate the recidivism rate in New England, the Globe scoured public police logs, Internet databases, and news media reports from Maine to southern Connecticut to identify the courts where criminal convictions occurred. Then the Globe traveled to or called the court houses to request records. The effort took three years, because most courts in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine do not have online databases where the public can search for records.
The public records in criminal courts made it possible to scrutinize an immigration system that rarely opens its files to the public — or even to US lawmakers.
For instance, the public did not know that ICE had struggled to deport Jean Jacques to Haiti in 2012, after he served time for attempted murder in Connecticut. ICE said in an e-mail that the agency repeatedly tried to deport Jacques, but had to release him when Haiti refused to accept him back to his home country. Then in 2015, he fatally stabbed 25-year-old Casey Chadwick of Norwich, Conn., and stuffed her body in a closet. A jury convicted him of murder in April.
Chadwick’s death outraged lawmakers, who said they got few answers from the federal immigration system about the handling of Jacques’ case. Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal and two other Democrats called for an inquiry by Homeland Security’s inspector general.
“It is unacceptable that ICE failed to remove a convicted attempted murderer subject to a final deportation order — a measure that would have saved the life of Casey Chadwick,” Blumenthal and others said in a statement in January. “ICE’s responses thus far to our repeated inquiries into this case have been incomplete and unsatisfactory, and we hope that this independent inquiry will finally uncover the facts surrounding this tragedy, enabling reforms necessary to ensure that this never happens again.”
Clear answers are hard to come by in a system that aggressively keeps its records from the public.
But the reoffender rate among the immigrants on the Globe’s list is clearly much higher, at 30 percent.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors limiting immigration, said she believes the reoffender rate is probably even higher, given the Globe’s limited access to immigrants’ criminal histories. Some names, for instance, were too common to verify against court records. She said the government should track the rate itself.
“This is exactly what the government should be doing to evaluate the impact of its own policy, to make sure that it’s not causing harm,” she said. “They shouldn’t be doing this blindly without taking the time to evaluate the effects of the policy, the public safety consequences.”
Immigration officials acknowledge they have not calculated a recidivism rate, but say they are “working to provide this data.”
“ICE is committed to continually improving the agency’s ability to track and manage ever evolving agency-related data, but the agency does not have statistically reliable information on recidivism rates prior to FY13,” ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer said in an e-mail.
Immigration officials have also pointed out that they are increasingly focusing on deporting criminals, which they argue is likely to contribute to a lower recidivism rate.
Since 2008, ICE has deported hundreds of thousands of criminals. During the last fiscal year, 59 percent of the immigrants they deported had been convicted of at least one crime. And ICE officials say they are constantly pressing other countries to take back their citizens. Some of the released criminals were later taken back into custody and deported.
But ICE has also released tens of thousands of criminals in the United States — and in far greater numbers than they have disclosed to the Globe.
ICE told the news organization that the agency freed 12,941 criminals nationwide from 2008 to early 2014.
But Saldaña, the ICE director, told the House committee that the agency freed 36,007 criminals in fiscal 2013 alone. They are among 86,288 criminals they released from 2013 to fiscal 2015.
ICE officials said in an e-mail that the agency only provided the Globe the names of criminals they were forced to release under the Supreme Court decision; the additional releases were for other reasons. They did not elaborate, but ICE has told Congress it has also released criminals because of budget constraints, humanitarian reasons, or when an immigration judge ordered a release.
ICE has also suggested in court records that “many” of the criminals they released were traffic violators or other nonviolent offenders. But the news organization’s analysis shows that nationwide, immigration officials freed more convicted killers (201) than traffic violators (116) from 2008 to 2012.
ICE has also told Congress, as recently as May, that just 23 nations were failing to cooperate with deportations.
But ICE records show that as recently as 2016, there were about 140 nations that refused to take back at least some of their citizens, including Armenia, the Bahamas, St. Lucia, and many others.
In New England, about a quarter of the criminals released from 2008 to 2012 were previously convicted of rape, murder, or other violent crimes, based on the criminal histories that ICE provided to the Globe.
Court records show that, for a variety of reasons, some released criminals went on to enjoy privileges that otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants usually can’t enjoy, such as obtaining driver’s licenses. Five released criminals were even registered to vote in Massachusetts, putting them in the jury pool. State officials said none had ever voted, and they removed them from the list after being asked about them.
One released criminal thwarted his own deportation three times by kicking and screaming on an airplane bound for his homeland, prompting the pilot to throw him off while they were still on the ground, according to federal court records.
But more troubling are the criminals who left a string of new victims once immigration officials set them free.
In January 2010, a Framingham woman walked out of a Stop & Shop and saw her ex-boyfriend, Oscoe Housen — the same man who had served time for attacking her with a hammer. He was supposed to have been deported to Jamaica, but ICE released him instead.
Early the next morning, Housen broke into the woman’s home and stabbed her and a friend with a large knife as her children slept nearby. Police said they discovered a gruesome scene — the man was bleeding heavily and the woman asked “if she was going to die.” She lived, and Housen, 64, is serving up to 12 years in prison.
ICE also released Nhoeuth Nhim, one of several masked gang members who led a frightening home invasion and robbery in 2000 in Cranston, R.I. The gang used duct tape to bind, gag, and blindfold a family of five, including a 6-year-old. After robbing them of money and jewelry, the gang set a fire in the basement and dragged the family into the flames. The family, hard-working immigrants from Cambodia, all escaped.
After serving prison time, Nhim was supposed to face deportation, but instead ICE released him in 2009 and he returned to Rhode Island, where he later was charged with sexually assaulting his ex-girlfriend. He pleaded no contest to felony assault and is in prison.
In 2009, ICE released Bo Kang Me, a 48-year-old Cambodian immigrant with a long criminal record. He was soon rearrested for new crimes and probation violations. But he was free in 2013 when a Providence school let him pick up a child from school, even though he was not authorized to do so. He molested the child and is serving prison time for second-degree child molestation.
ICE had no comment on the cases, but said, “The decisions made in every case are made with the best available information ICE is able to obtain at the time.”
On April 25, ICE unexpectedly sent the Globe a new list of released criminals that showed that 83 percent of the criminals released nationwide from 2012 to 2016 are convicted felons.
Critics say it’s likely that ICE will continue to release serious criminals in the future, but unless the agency changes its privacy policies, there is no guarantee that the public will ever know.
Jeremy C. Fox of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Maria Sacchetti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.