Red tape at the Immigration and Naturalization Service is preventing police from reporting illegal immigrants who commit crimes, a New York City official said Thursday.

The result has been that criminals who could be deported have been allowed to remain in the country, and in some cases, go on to commit violent crimes.

New York City's Criminal Justice Coordinator John Feinblatt testified Thursday before a House subcommittee on immigration to answer questions surrounding the rape of a woman in a Queens park last December.

Four of the five men charged in the case were found to be illegal immigrants, and three of those had been previously arrested.

Feinblatt said the INS is hard to reach whenever a New York police officer tries to refer a suspected illegal immigrant to them. If the officer persists, Feinblatt said, INS then ties the issue in unnecessary regulations and red tape.

He presented an internal INS memo showing the agency requires any such referrals to be submitted in writing, by a high-ranking police superior, and instructs INS employees to inform the requesting officer of the numerous costs of jailing and transportation that could be incurred by the local department if they persist with their request.

A spokesman for the INS did not immediately return a call for comment.

Members of the panel pointed to a mayoral order dating back to 1989 that prevents police officers from contacting INS officials when a non-citizen is arrested -- a rule aimed at assuaging immigrants' fears of being deported should they report crimes.

The rule was altered in 1996 by federal legislation, so now police officers in New York, and Houston, which has similar guidelines, are permitted to contact INS, but are not specifically encouraged to do so.

Some members of the panel, including Lamar Smith, R-Texas, questioned whether such policies might be endangering American lives by allowing dangerous criminals to hide in immigrant communities, especially amid heightened fears of terrorist attacks.

Smith said outside the hearing that he felt local police departments should be more strongly encouraged to report criminals in the country illegally to immigration authorities.

"Untold lives could be saved. All we have to do is enforce the law," said Smith. "Unfortunately, this is not being done in a number of localities."

Immigrant advocate Leslye Orloff of the National Organization of Women, told legislators that if police are forced to report suspected illegal immigrants, countless crime victims, especially women being abused by spouses, will endure continued beatings out of fear of deportation.