16 illegal immigrants arrested, let go

Saturday, April 29, 2006

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Sixteen Mexicans arrested for illegally entering the country were let free this week because there was no room at the jail, authorities said Friday.

Instead of detaining the 12 men and four women, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents dropped them off at a bus terminal here and sent them on their way.

The incident was an illuminating sign of how people pass into this country as the issue of illegal immigrants rages on Capitol Hill. ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said that with more than 10 million illegal immigrants in the country, authorities sometimes release such people because of lack of jail space.

"We have to prioritize our mission -- to go after the highest priority -- and that would be criminal aliens, who are a higher threat to the public than non-criminal aliens," Rusnok said.

None of the 16 people were suspected of any wrongdoing beyond entering the country illegally. Three others in the group were detained for suspicion of crimes, including alien smuggling and re-entering the U.S. after being deported, officials said.

The immigrants were arrested early Thursday in Columbus, Kan., and taken to the ICE office in Strafford, northeast of here. None of the individuals were named in police reports or by immigration officials.

Those that were dropped off at the bus station did not have adequate money to buy tickets, authorities said. Police found 11 of them emergency overnight housing; the five others had enough money to stay at a motel.

They were awaiting wire transfers of money Friday, apparently from family or friends at home.

The group told police they were headed to New Jersey and had been traveling by van from somewhere on the U.S.-Mexican border. The driver was one of the three people detained by ICE.

Immigration lawyer Roy Petty said it is not unusual for ICE to use its authority to release illegal aliens who were not suspected of any felonies.

"They really have limited resources. You know, people want to put all these immigrants in jail, but we don't have even remotely the room for that," said Petty, whose law office in Rogers, Ark., frequently represents clients in southwest Missouri.

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