WASHINGTON -- Democrat and Republican lawmakers in Congress are calling for federal legislation that would compel the US State Department to play “hardball” and deny diplomatic visas to nations that block deportation of thousands of foreign criminals, many of whom are released to US streets instead.
Representative Ted Poe, a Republican from Texas, said members of both parties are dispatching staff to a meeting Friday to try to advance legislation he filed last year requiring the State Department to sanction more than 20 countries that routinely stall deportations of their citizens.
The Globe reported Sunday that federal immigration officials have released more than 8,500 convicted murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals since 2008, including as many as 10 convicted murderers in New England and 201 nationwide, because their home countries did not take them back.
Current law allows the State Department to deny visas, which allow entry to the United States, to nations that refuse to take back convicted criminals. But since 2001, officials have only used that power against tiny Guyana in South America.
“The State Department doesn’t enforce the law,” Poe said in a speech Wednesday on the House floor that an aide said was inspired by the Globe series, “Justice in the Shadows.” “We need to get these people out of our country . . . and these countries need to take them back, or there ought to be a consequence.”
Federal immigration officials say they have to release the criminals because they cannot deport them without a passport or other travel papers, and the Supreme Court has ruled they cannot hold them longer than six months if deportation is unlikely. But Poe and others say the US government can do more to prod countries to accept their own citizens.
Poe’s bill would require the State Department to deny visas to embassy and consular support staff if they do not accept the criminals within 90 days. He said the bill would affect countries such as China, Jamaica, Pakistan, Cuba, and Vietnam, which refused to take a Massachusetts man paroled after serving about 20 years for helping to kill an Everett girl and her mother in 1989.
Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Immigration Policy and Enforcement Subcommittee, said Wednesday that she is working with Poe on legislation that would impose sanctions without being too broad. She said delays in deportation are sometimes warranted, recalling a case in which France refused to accept a mentally ill woman who was not one of their citizens.
“There are occasions when the government refusing to take the person are right,” she said.
But she said withholding diplomatic visas to embassy and consular staff should compel countries to take back their citizens. “We’d like to actually get this done,” she said. “Believe me, that will be noticed, and that will hurt.”
It is unclear whether the legislation would pass, let alone get out of committee, given the serious political implications of denying diplomatic visas to powerful nations such as China, one of the countries that are slow to accept criminals.
But Poe, on the House floor, quoted the Globe article to show that the matter was a safety issue. He recounted the horrific murder of Qian Wu, 46, a New York woman who was bludgeoned and stabbed to death in January 2010, by an illegal immigrant from China who was supposed to have been deported.
“Ms. Wu’s death did not have to occur,” Poe said. “This crime could have actually been prevented. Chen should not have been back on the streets after serving time in prison, but he was.”
Besides sanctions, Poe’s bill also requires the Department of Homeland Security to notify state and local law enforcement of a criminal’s release “as soon as is practicable.”
But Poe’s legislation does not require immigration officials to notify crime victims of the release of criminals. The Globe found that the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcment, the Homeland Security agency that detains and deports immigrants, has released or deported more than 1 million criminals in the past decade, but they have notified only 1,000 to 3,000 victims.
Poe said he was unaware that victims were not notified and may add such a requirement to the current bill or future legislation. ”Of all people on earth that want to know when a person’s released, it’s the victim,” he said.
Lofgren said she, too, was unaware that victims were not notified. “If you think that the person who victimized you is safely locked up someplace, there are precautions you may not take,” she said. “That strikes me as quite wrong.”
Federal immigration officials said they detain immigrants only for civil immigration violations, not crimes, and typically after the immigrants’ sentence has been served. Still, immigration officials said they notify victims when they sign up for their program.
The bipartisan effort comes as Congress and President Obama are gearing up next year for a massive overhaul of the federal immigration system.
On the House floor, Poe said, “It’s no secret that everybody believes our immigration system is broken,” but he said Republicans and Democrats could come together to address the issue of releasing criminals now.
Lofgren agreed. “Even when Ted Poe and I probably don’t agree on hundreds of items, that doesn’t mean that you can’t work together on something we agree on that’s good for the country,’’ she said.
The release of foreign criminals is one of multiple findings in a three-day Globe investigation into the secrecy surrounding ICE and its sister agencies, which operate with little public scrutiny despite having emerged as the largest law enforcement network in the United States.