WARNING: This column will make you very angry!
By law, illegal aliens convicted of heinous crimes - rape, murder, child molestation - are to be deported once they've served their jail terms. But lately, thousands of them have simply been let go. And Justice Department officials have refused to release a government database that could help journalists and private citizens find these aliens.
No one knows exactly how many of these criminals there are nationwide, but Cox Newspapers Washington Bureau journalists Eliot Jaspin and Julia Malone examined Georgia state prison records in 2002 and found numerous cases like convicted pedophile Miguel Angel Gordoba. He served a four-year sentence for molesting a 2-year-old girl in Alma, Ga., then disappeared following his release.
Federal officials are required by law to deport people like Cordoba when they are released from prison, but immigration officials are often nowhere to be found when the illegal alien felons walk away from jail. Federal investigators say there are thousands of Miguel Angel Gordobas. As scary a prospect as that is, this story gets worse. Much worse.
After finding so many cases in Georgia using state records, the Cox reporters decided to look at federal data to get a better idea of the scope of the problem. They submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs seeking an electronic copy of all records collected on alien inmates in the government's Grants Management System. The GMS funds are used by Washington to reimburse state and local governments for the cost of incarcerating illegal aliens like Gordoba.
The Justice Department refused to provide any of the data sought by Jaspin and Malone. Why? For three reasons, according to Rachal Madan, Office of Justice Programs' general counsel: (1) the grants data are exempt from disclosure under the FOIA because it concerns matters "of internal significance in which the public has no substantial interest," (2) processing the data "would place an unjustifiable administrative burden" on the Office of Justice Programs, and (3) releasing the data would "constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of (the convicted illegal aliens') personal privacy."
In other words, the government refused to make the data available because the public - that's you and me, our families and neighbors - wouldn't benefit, the agency can't be bothered and it would be wrong to violate the criminals' privacy!
Such "reasoning" defies understanding. It is the most outrageous violation of the concept underlying the FOIA - taxpayers have a right to know what their government is doing with their tax dollars - I've seen in my two-decades-plus as a journalist in our nation's capitol.
This case also illustrates, however, the value of the FOIA. The public clearly has a "substantial interest" in knowing the identities of criminals among us; that's why we see "Wanted by the FBI" posters in every U.S. Post Office in America. It's why police so often ask the public for help in finding accused criminals who are at large. It's why the "Amber" system works so well in finding kidnapped kids.
Think what would happen if photos of these thousands of illegal alien criminals and other information about them gleaned from the data by Jaspin and Malone became available on Cox Newspaper's Web site. You can be sure lots these thugs would deport themselves as soon as possible. Federal officials, aided by citizens, thanks to the FOIA, would catch many more. My guess is that incoming Attorney General Alberto Gonzales disagrees with Madan's view that her agency can't be bothered to aid such an outcome by compiling the data sought by Jaspin and Malone.
As for Madan's fear of violating a convicted illegal alien's privacy, here's another thing to think about: Homeland Security officials admit they can't adequately protect our borders. Things are so bad in Arizona that citizens there are volunteering to help monitor the border.
How many terrorists lurk among those thousands of convicted felons who should have been deported? Which is more important - protecting an illegal alien's alleged privacy or finding and deporting somebody planning the next 9/11?
Cox Newspapers is appealing the Office of Justice Programsí denial, but FOIA appeals often take years to complete and always costs thousands of dollars that most media organizations simply don't have. You can help. Ask OJP's boss, Assistant Attorney General Deborah Daniels, to release the data sought by Cox. Her address is: 810 Seventh Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20001.
Mark Tapscott is director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire