Oregon prison inmate deportation program under way

PORTLAND — A deal with federal officials to deport Oregon prison inmates who are in the U.S. illegally and have less than six months left on their sentences is moving ahead after a slow start.

The state hopes to save more than $2 million over the current two-year budget cycle by sending the inmates back to their home countries, in Oregon's case, mostly to Mexico.

The savings from the early deportation program were expected to begin shortly after it was approved by the Legislature last year. But a legal glitch delayed finalizing the agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, until January.

Oregon Department of Corrections officials said the program is now under way, with about a dozen inmates already handed over to ICE for deportation.

Prisoners waive their rights to challenge the deportation in exchange for commutation of their sentence by the governor and early release. They also face tough penalties if they return illegally.

The federal agency has already interviewed 52 of the 205 inmates eligible for deportation, according to Jennifer Black, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman.

"It's not quite as quick as we thought, but it is moving along," Black said.

The eligibility is restricted to certain nonviolent crimes, such as convictions for drugs or theft, she said.

"No person-to-person crimes qualify," Black said, such as convictions for violent crimes that fall under mandatory sentencing guidelines, often called Measure 11 crimes.

Only a handful of other states have similar programs, but most have saved money.

New York has saved about $152 million since 1995 with its version of the program, while Arizona has saved more than $33 million since 2005, immigration officials said.

Georgia has reported the most successful program so far, removing more than 3,600 illegal immigrant inmates from October 2008 through August 2009 for an estimated savings of $204 million.

But a program in Rhode Island that began in 2008 had no deportations for more than a year after it started because of the strict requirements and a relatively small illegal immigrant population in the state's prisons.

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