by by Maggie Lange

illustration by by Conrad Stern-Ascher

Throughout history, escape tales from penitentiary systems have cropped up in books and films alike: The Count of Monte Cristo, Escape from Alcatraz, Prison Break, that Tom Waits movie. But what if there was a deal to give inmates an early out? On Tuesday, September 9, Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri announced his approval of a piece of legislation called Rapid Removal of Eligible Parolees Accepted for Transfer, or Rapid REPAT.

The program offers a deal for illegal immigrants who have been imprisoned for non-violent crimes: if they agree to immediate deportation, the penitentiary system will release them before they reach their parole. In exchange for this early release from jail, if a Rapid REPAT parolee returns to the States, he could face an additional 20 years beyond the remainder of his original sentence. And there's a further catch: agreeing to a shortened prison sentence in exchange for deportation waives the prisoner's right to appeal that is associated with their initial sentence.
Rapid REPAT is coordinated by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the RI Department of Corrections. ICE executives modeled Rapid REPAT after fiscally successful plans in New York and Arizona. These states have reported a combined savings of over $140 million between implementation in January 1995 and September 2007.
Eleven percent of the Rhode Island parolees that the US immigration authorities investigated in 2007 would have been eligible for this program. If the Rapid REPAT program had been in place, this would have amounted to a $5 million saving for the Ocean State. According to June records from Rhode Island's penitentiary system, over 30 currently incarcerated inmates meet eligibility for Rapid REPAT. Estimates from the ICE field office indicate this program could be running as early at October.
Because the federal government has yet to create an effective and contemporary immigration policy, state and local governments nationwide often bear the responsibility of addressing immigration. In 2007, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures, states enacted three times the number of immigration bills enacted the year before. Carcieri's Rapid REPAT initiative is an example of state legislation passed to alleviate the immigration issue.
Governor Carcieri launched his offensive on illegal immigration in March 2008. He announced in a State House speech "the federal government has failed to act so we must take measures on the state level to bring some clarity to this complex issue... Illegal immigrants [have] no healthcare, no pension, and no social security, they cannot fully participate in the American Dream. As long as the issue of illegal immigration remains unresolved on the national level, people will continue to suffer and taxpayers will bear the costs." Carcieri's speech struggled to make a distinction between immigrants here legally and illegally, and also implied that any unlawful aliens did not, and could not, contribute to the state in a positive way.
Suffering from a budget deficit close to $400 million, Rhode Island can't bear any more financial burdens. In April, Governor Carcieri promised to reduce state spending by $131 million to combat Rhode Island's current $384 million projected deficit. Unlike federal requirements, Rhode Island is obligated by law to have a balanced budget. Carcieri's camp, as well as citizen groups like RIILE - Rhode Island for Immigration Law Enforcement, argues that targeting the issue of illegal immigration is a rational way to cut state expenditures. The state penitentiary system cannot bear any additional burdens either: because Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institutions are stretched beyond capacity, state prisons are now releasing convicted criminals early.
Of Rhode Island's one million residents, an estimated 40,000 are illegal aliens, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan research program dedicated to Hispanic issues. FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, estimates that Rhode Island taxpayers cover about $87.4 million per year due to costs related to unlawful immigration. On March 27, 2008, Carcieri issued a public statement explaining that this large illegal immigrant population "puts a tremendous strain upon our public schools, hospitals, state and local human services organizations and law enforcement agencies. That, in turn, has an impact upon state and local budgets. In these difficult fiscal times, we barely have enough resources to take care of the neediest amongst us who are here legally." Carcieri's dedication to reducing state spending has certainly forced him to make tough decisions, and to Carcieri, supporting only those that pay taxes seems an easy solution.
In March, Carcieri signed an executive order demanding that state police and prison authorities identify illegal immigrants using the E-Verify system, an internet database run by the Department of Homeland Security. Carcieri's order also requires state agencies and private firms working with state agencies to verify the immigration status of their new hires--and the governor has made it clear that he would support extending this legislation to all private companies in Rhode Island. Though Carcieri explains that the system is supposed to help employers verify the legality of their employees, it has received criticism (from groups like the Rhode Island ACLU), for giving inaccurate information that encourages discrimination against lawful residents who seem foreign.
The E-Verify order is not the first measure Carcieri has taken against illegal immigrants: he's also cut their health care benefits. In April, the Governor eliminated RIte Care benefits, a Medicaid program that provides comprehensive health coverage, for undocumented people living in Rhode Island. Carcieri says these cuts reflect the state's need to give priority to its documented citizens, which meant that approximately 2,800 immigrant children and 7,400 adults lost their health benefits. Together, these cutbacks should save the Ocean State approximately $15 million.
Ironically, despite Carcieri's intentions, all of these measures could actually end up costing Rhode Island even more money. Implementing E-Verify and Rapid REPAT will require initial investments. And these measures could also generate more costs for the state later on. Reducing RIte Care, for example, will undoubtedly contribute to the state's already growing number of uninsured citizens. Without health insurance, families are more likely to wait for drastic conditions before seeking assistance. This will inevitably result in expensive emergency room treatments rather than the comparatively cheaper preventative measures once funded by RIte Care. The estimated difference between a visit to a community health center and an emergency room is about $3,000 dollars.
Beyond economic concerns, each of Carcieri's plans raises larger questions. After the Governor signed Rapid REPAT, the majority of the members serving in Carcieri's Commission on Hispanic Affairs resigned out of protest. These members fear that Governor Carcieri's policies will usher in a new era of xenophobia in Rhode Island. In a statement to the press after announcing Rapid REPAT, Carcieri has implied that he believes the true benefit of this system is the deportation of illegal immigrants in general, "if they are here illegally and they've committed crimes," he said, "they shouldn't be here to start with."
Another controversial aspect of the Rapid REPAT is its focus on innocent citizens, not just criminals. As part of the program, state police have the authority and obligation to investigate the immigration status of anyone suspected of violating immigration policies - a requirement that extends to victims of crimes and witnesses. An order that targets the safety of victims could potentially generate a vulnerable underground community. Furthermore, if illegal immigrants are victims or witnesses to a crime, they face a disincentive to approach the police.
Stephen Brown, Director of the Rhode Island ACLU told the Independent that "the Rapid REPAT program is not limited to so-called 'illegal' immigrants. The deportation program also applies to lawful permanent residents and other non-citizens of lawful status who face potential deportation solely due to their conviction for a non-violent crime. In other words, individuals who have lawfully resided in this country for years, or even decades, and who have lawfully raised their family here, may be affected." The ACLU also is concerned that because of "language barriers and the complexities surrounding immigration law" Rapid REPAT negotiations will not be explained clearly enough to those it affects.
The effects of this legislation aren't limited solely to Rhode Island; Rapid REPAT also raises foreign policy issues. Without taking into consideration other countries' communities or parole policies, Rhode Island is prepared to send convicted criminals across borders. The Rapid REPAT program doesn't incorporate negotiation or consultation with the countries receiving these inmates. One could argue that as a state, Rhode Island doesn't have this type of authority.
While Governor Carcieri's legislative pieces are focused on illegal immigration, the consequences of these initiatives will have national and international effects. Governor Carcieri's actions raise questions of legislative authority, economic and social concerns for all citizens, and non-citizens, of Rhode Island. Although a dedication to reducing state spending is an admirable gubernatorial cause, allowances for social justice shouldn't fall second.

MARGARET LANGE B'11 collects $200 when she passes go.