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Foreigners make up 20% of federal prison population

Security Secretary Sergio Berni is seen in Buenos Aires province earlier this month.
By Mariano Parada López
For The Herald

Figures reveal Argentines still make up the vast majority of those in federal prisons

Almost 20 percent of those behind bars in the federal prison system are foreigners, a percentage that falls to 3.9 percent in Buenos Aires province.

The role of foreigners in crime has been in the spotlight recently, with Security Secretary Sergio Berni recently calling on lawmakers to pass laws that would make it harder for foreigners to arrive in the country and easier to deport those who have been accused of wrongdoing. The statements received widespread political backing from both Kirchnerite allies and much of the opposition.

Yet despite this concern, a May census of the prison system makes it clear that Argentines still make up the vast majority of the 10,000 people who are in federal prisons across the country. The figures also make it clear how it would be incorrect to say that all those behind bars are criminals. Of the 10,083 people who are in federal prisons, 6,028 of them have yet to go on trial.

In Buenos Aires province, the figures are even more skewed. Its prison service reports it has some 30,000 people behind bars, but only 1,173 — or 3.9 percent — are foreigners.

Of the foreigners who are behind bars in the federal system, 89 percent, or 1,795 people, come from the Americas. Europeans make up the second-largest international community in prisons with 161 people, or eight percent of the total. That is quickly followed by Asians, who represent seven percent of the total with 141 people.

In Buenos Aires province, all foreign-born prisoners come from the Americas, with Paraguay leading by a wide margin with 596. The second place goes to Uruguay with 178 people, Peru with 161, Bolivia with 112, Chile with 85 and Colombia with 41.

In the province, foreigners are accused of theft and murder almost in equal measure. A total of 312 are accused of, or have already been convicted of, robbery, representing 26.6 percent of the total. Murderers or alleged murderers encompass 308 people, or 26.25 percent of the total. Next up is drug-related offences with 229, or 19.52 percent of the total. (These figures are not available for the federal prison service.)

Reading the law

Berni talked of quick deportation as a possible way of dealing with foreign criminals. But the current law does not allow such a simple proceeding, details lawyer Gustavo Arballo.

“Foreigners who are here with a residence permit can only be expelled they have been convicted by a court and sentenced to at least five years in prison,” Arballo told the Herald. Recidivism can make deportation easier, especially if a foreigner has at least two convictions.

When it comes to illegal immigrants, the situation is a bit more complex. The Immigration Office can get involved in these cases, pushing for a deportation of anyone who does not quickly regularize his or her situation.

“This means it is possible to force someone out of the country without a conviction if he or she has been indicted and they are not here legally,” Arballo said.

Some foreigners may even choose to get kicked out of the country.

“A convicted foreigner can request an ’estrangement,” which is the situation in which he is expelled once he has served half of a sentence,‘ Arballo said. “Deportation serves as the sentence.”

The current Immigration Law, approved by Congress in December 2003, made deportation more difficult. Before, a law approved by the military dictatorship in 1981 gave the Interior Ministry the power to order deportation against those who “disrupt social peace, national security or public order.”

Yet those who are pushing for quick deportation may want to go further back in history, to the “Residence law” approved during the second presidency of Julio Argentino Roca in 1902. The law, which was approved following social unrest by labour unions, allowed the state to expel foreigners without a trial.

Lawmakers must have a “serious debate on how to solve this problem and to give the judicial system more tools” to fight crime, Berni said earlier this month. “I urge lawmakers to give the courts all (necessary) tools to deport foreigners if they commit crimes.”Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich defended Berni, saying the comments “were not xenophobic or discriminatory” and that his proposals to make it easier to deport those accused of breaking the law were the logical result of “a state based on the rule of law.”Buenos Aires Governor Daniel Scioli has also backed Berni.


@mparadalopez

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