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FLUSHING, N.Y. — Qian Wu thought the man who brutally attacked her was gone forever.
She was sure that Huang Chen, a Chinese citizen who slipped into America on a ship and stayed in the country illegally, would be deported as soon as he got out of jail for choking, punching, and pointing a knife at her in 2006.
But China refused to take Chen back. So, after jailing Chen on and off for three years in Texas, immigration officials believed they were out of options and did what they have done with thousands of criminals like him.
They quietly let him go.
Nobody warned Wu, or prosecutors, or the public. The petite, 46-year-old woman learned Chen was still here when he stormed into her unlocked apartment one day in January 2010 and announced, “I bet you didn’t expect to see me.” Terrified, she called the police, and he fled. But for two weeks, Chen was free to stalk her and finally, to catch her as she hurried home with milk and bread one afternoon.
Chen then finished what he had started earlier, bashing Wu on the head with a hammer and slashing her with a knife. As she lay crumpled in a grimy stairwell, he ripped out her heart and a lung and fled with his macabre trophies.
“She lived in horror in the last two weeks of her life,” said Yongwei Guo, Wu’s widower, through an interpreter in New York. “She knew there was somebody coming to kill her and we asked the police for protection, and also the government, but they did nothing.”
Wu is just one casualty of an immigration system cloaked in a blanket of secrecy that the Founding Fathers could not have imagined, a blanket that isn’t lifted even when life is at risk. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its sister agencies have emerged as the largest law enforcement network in the United States since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and they are increasingly dealing with criminals, but they play by very different rules than the local police, prosecutors, or even the FBI.
A yearlong Globe investigation found the culture of secrecy can be deadly to Americans and foreigners alike: Immigration officials do not notify most crime victims when they release a criminal such as Chen, and they only notify local law enforcement on a case by case basis. And even though immigration officials have the power to try to hold dangerous people longer, that rarely occurs.
The Globe also found that the pattern of secrecy extends to the treatment of immigrants who end up behind bars, though they have no criminal records. Foreigners in immigration detention have fewer rights than ordinary criminal suspects and limited ability to get word to the outside world about their plight. Even their names are kept secret, purportedly for their own protection, and many never get a public hearing to make their case.
Taken together, the system produces a litany of consequences: A young Lynn woman with no criminal record died in immigration custody from a heart ailment without a chance to ask a judge for medical help; a father of five in Texas disappeared from his family for several days after he was detained; a Cuban man in a wheelchair languished for an extraordinary 14 years in immigration detention, invisible to the world outside.
It is also a system in which — as Wu would learn in her final days of terror — Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, routinely releases dangerous detainees to the streets of America without warning the public. Over the past four years, immigration officials have largely without notice freed more than 8,500 detainees convicted of murder, rape, and other crimes, according to ICE’s own statistics, mainly because their home countries would not take them back.
Deporting illegal immigrants requires more than simply putting them on an airplane to their own country. People being deported need travel papers — such as a passport — like anyone else who travels abroad. If their native country refuses to issue the necessary papers , the United States cannot send deportees there. And the Supreme Court has said ICE cannot hold the immigrants forever; if immigration officials cannot deport them after six months, the court said, they should generally set the immigrants free.
When the Globe requested the names of the released criminals under the Freedom of Information Act, federal immigration officials refused, saying it would be a “clearly unwarranted invasion” of the immigrants’ privacy. Officials said public interest in their names was “minimal” anyway.
“In the absence of any identified public interest or explanation as to how the disclosure of the arrestees’ information will advance that interest, the personal privacy interests will prevail,” Matthew Chandler, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration, said in a written statement to the Globe.Continued...