Backlog At Borders, Cracks in The System

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 14, 2006

Beefed-up enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border since Sept. 11, 2001, has substantially increased the number of arrests of illegal immigrants, but tens of thousands of captured non-Mexicans continue to be released into the United States because there is no place to hold them, according to experts and immigration officials.

The vast majority simply slip away inside the country after being issued "Notices to Appear" for a deportation hearing -- documents known to Border Patrol agents as "Notices to Disappear." The success of border crossers who stay in the United States through this "catch-and-release" process has encouraged others who hope to enter the country the same way.

In a dozen speeches since October, President Bush has vowed to replace catch-and-release with the "catch-and-return" of 150,000 "other than Mexican" (OTM) immigrants arrested each year. The goal is to deny court hearings to all but asylum-seekers, speed deportations and make the most of limited detention space in jails, prisons and immigration centers.

But as Washington debates the overhaul of the nation's immigration laws and Bush prepares to address the nation tomorrow on border protection, the persistent catch-and-release problem is a reminder of costly and unintended consequences of past enforcement efforts.

Even if authorities overcome operational and legal hurdles to curb the flow of people from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and other countries, experts say they will be addressing only a tiny sliver of the illegal immigration problem. The U.S. Border Patrol arrested nearly 1.2 million people last year -- the vast majority of them Mexicans who were promptly returned across the border -- and estimates that 500,000 others evaded capture.

"What Congress has built is one of the most expensive revolving doors in the world," said Victor Cerda, former chief of staff of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Without broader changes, he said, "You're going to be here in 10 years, with another 20 million aliens."

Since the founding of the Department of Homeland Security, which sought to deter illegal crossings with a show of force, arrests of non-Mexican border crossers have tripled, from 49,545 in 2003 to 155,000 in 2005. But presidents and Congress for 20 years have not shown corresponding support for detention beds, courts, inland enforcement or diplomatic and administrative changes.

As a result, the spike in arrests backfired, because there was no place to put the tens of thousands of new detainees. Overwhelmed immigration courts have been unable to keep up.

Nor could the Border Patrol immediately send non-Mexicans back to Mexico, which does not accept other countries' nationals, forcing the agency to house them at an annual cost of $35,000 per bed.

Beset by start-up and coordination problems in the new Homeland Security Department, ICE faced a $500 million budget deficit in 2004, leaving a fourth of its detention jobs unfilled. As arrests climbed last year, Border Patrol agents released 70 percent of non-Mexicans into the United States. Of those released and later ordered to leave the country, only 18 percent do.

Word soon spread to smugglers and illegal immigrants, who rushed in to learn whether finding work in the United States meant only a short detention at the border.

Federal statistics show the result, which has enraged border communities. Once arrested and released, the number of illegal immigrants who failed to appear in court more than tripled from 29,550 in 2003 to 97,868 in 2005, or 60 percent of cases, up from 32 percent.

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