Politics & Policy

Let This Policy Go

"Catch and release" should stay with the fishes.

There are two types of people who are intimately familiar with the practice of “catch and release”–fishermen and border-control agents. Fishermen at least get some satisfaction from it. For border-control agents, it is a symptom of this nation’s contempt for its own immigration laws.

When Mexicans are caught crossing into the U.S., they are returned across the border. When illegals from countries Other Than Mexico (OTMs) are caught, it’s more complicated. They often come from Latin American countries that have various obstacles to repatriation, and we don’t have the space to hold them. So they are released into the U.S. after they promise to show up at a deportation hearing. That promise and $80 might get you the services of an illegal day laborer.

Congress is beginning a scorching battle over immigration policy, pitting anti-enforcement business and ethnic lobbies backing the McCain-Kennedy amnesty bill against grassroots supporters of a tough-enforcement approach, embodied in the more muscular Kyl-Cornyn bill. There is no better emblem of the border insanity Congress must fix than the travesty of “catch and release.”

The Border Patrol is set to apprehend 150,000 OTMs in this fiscal year. Most of those are caught in the Rio Grande Valley Sector in Southeast Texas, where 52,160 OTMs have been caught so far this year. Of those, 92 percent have been released on their own recognizance–and are probably bound for an urban area near you. The immigration court in Harlingen, Texas, has a failure-to-appear rate of roughly 90 percent.

The illegals are supposed to provide an address where they can be found. Instead, they provide fake addresses or none at all. OTMs are known to present themselves to border agents once they cross the border so they can get their “notice to appear” (or “to disappear,” as it is commonly called) and duly proceed on their way. Law-enforcement officials tell of people claiming to be from South or Central America being released although they don’t speak Spanish. An estimated 400,000 fugitive illegals in the U.S. have failed to appear for their hearings.

The office within the Department of Homeland Security responsible for detentions and removals has 18,500 detention beds. Of those, 16,800 are reserved for criminals and others who urgently have to be detained. Those beds are overwhelmed, since so many criminal aliens attempt to (and do) make it into the U.S. (Between March 2003 and February 2004, nearly 80,000 criminal aliens were deported.) That leaves only 1,700 beds for everyone else. It’s not enough.

What is mostly missing, however, is political will. Current high levels of illegal immigration are not inevitable. When the U.S. has raised its terror alert, border crossings have diminished because would-be illegals figure it will be harder to make it across. According to the Border Patrol, illegal crossings declined by 50 percent in areas briefly patrolled by the Minuteman citizen activists earlier this year.

In early July, the Border Patrol began focusing on the problem of high numbers of Brazilians illegally crossing the border in the Rio Grande Valley Sector by placing them in detention and applying an expedited removal process that can get them out of the country in days. Many of the Brazilian illegals are relatively well-educated professionals and don’t take kindly to the prospect of being detained. About two weeks later, the number of Brazilian crossings in that sector was down 75 percent.

The reform bill sponsored by Republican Sens. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and John Cornyn (Texas) would encourage authorities to make greater use of expedited removal, setting aside $50 million for it. On the other end, it pushes the countries of origin to cooperate by making a temporary-guest-worker program in the U.S. available to their citizens only if the governments take back illegals within three days. Finally, the bill provides for another 10,000 detention beds over five years.

It would be a step toward rationality at the border, and toward appropriately reserving the practice of “catch and release” for trout.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate


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