Kevin Johnson, USA Today, Feb. 2
FLORENCE, Ariz. — Thousands of illegal immigrants, mostly from Central and South America, are being released into the USA almost immediately after they are picked up by the Border Patrol as part of a policy that U.S. officials acknowledge represents a significant gap in homeland security.
The treatment of illegal immigrants from Mexico has not changed. U.S. Border Patrol agents continue to catch and deport waves of Mexican illegals, who last year accounted for most of the 905,000 people caught sneaking into the USA along the 2,000-mile Southwestern border.
But deporting illegals from countries other than Mexico — known here as “OTMs” — is far more complicated. Several Central and South American governments have been reluctant to accept groups of people for repatriation. And the Department of Homeland Security, while spending billions of dollars on a range of anti-terrorist programs, has a limited budget for renting detention cells at local jails.
The result: With no place to put thousands of captured illegals from Central and South America, the Border Patrol has begun releasing them after giving them written orders to appear at deportation hearings in nearby U.S. cities. Immigration officials acknowledge the exercise is futile: About 86% of those issued such notices never show up for the court hearings.
In a procedure that has been ridiculed by local law enforcement officials and even some Border Patrol agents, the agents are told to make sure that illegal immigrants provide U.S. addresses and contact telephone numbers before they are released. The information is supposed to be included on copies of the immigration court notices.
But local law enforcement officials who have reviewed dozens of the notices say that many illegals provide false addresses or none at all. That leaves U.S. authorities with few clues about where to look for the illegals if they fail to appear in court.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says that in 2003, as many as 6,000 illegals entered the USA under the government’s “catch and release” policy. Officials in U.S. border towns and other critics say the policy threatens local residents’ safety and undermines security along the Southwestern border at a time when counterterrorism officials believe al-Qaeda operatives could be focusing on Mexico as an entry point to the USA.
“The Border Patrol is admitting to me that they don’t have a clue about who these people really are or what kind of threat they might pose,” says D’Wayne Jernigan, the sheriff in Val Verde County, Texas. “During these times when everybody’s concerned about who’s coming into this country, I think you have to question the wisdom of this policy.”
The “catch and release” policy has existed for several years but has become particularly evident since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which led U.S. officials to tighten border security.
The policy has frustrated some border agents, who are encountering waves of illegal immigrants from Central and South America. The illegals have heard that despite the increased security, they are likely to have little trouble getting into the USA even if they are picked up by border patrols.
In recent months, immigration officials have been monitoring a flood of Brazilians into Arizona. Carrying passports and other identification documents, many of the Brazilians have intentionally surrendered to U.S. agents so they could quickly get notices to appear in court — and then move on to Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles and communities in New Jersey.
Not enough money for jails
David Venturella, assistant director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, acknowledges that the “catch and release” policy has raised security concerns and even angered federal agents.
He says the policy is driven by the lack of federal money to rent space in local jails to detain illegal aliens. The U.S. government pays localities about $54 a day to house each detainee, and in January housed more than 22,600 illegal aliens — above its budgeted capacity of 19,444.
Venturella, who oversees the detention and removal of illegals, says that Homeland Security officials are asking Congress to boost the government’s $680 million budget for detaining and deporting illegal immigrants. The budget has been static for two years.
He says that illegals are run through basic background checks before they are released. They are fingerprinted and their names are checked against government databases of known criminals.
“Is that enough?” Venturella asks. “Probably not.”
He acknowledges there is “an inherent risk” in releasing illegal aliens who don’t appear to be immediate threats. “The resources to support enforcement activities are out of whack,” he says. “It’s an unacceptable situation.”
Dora Alcala, the mayor of Del Rio, Texas, agrees.
Two weeks ago, unable to continue paying for the detentions of 76 illegal aliens from Central America, the Border Patrol directed Sheriff Jernigan to take all of them to the Del Rio bus station. There, many of them caught buses to continue their journeys to Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.
“We didn’t know who these people were or what their intentions were,” Alcala says. “They all were released with these notices to appear (in court) at some date in the future. But do you honestly think there was any chance of that? I don’t think so.”
One family’s plight
There’s no reason to believe that Bilar Damasceno is a terrorist. His story is similar to those of immigrants who for generations have come to America for a better life.
His family’s small bakery in Brasilia, Brazil, had become a frequent target for armed bandits. During a recent robbery, he says, he was shot in the leg by a gunman who after his conviction vowed to get revenge against Damasceno, his wife and 20-month-old daughter.
The threat inspired Damasceno to pack up his family six days before Christmas and risk entering the USA illegally. Damasceno had reason to believe they would be able to get into America without much trouble: Friends from South and Central America who had entered the USA were sending word that U.S. border detention centers were full.
Damasceno says he was told that U.S. agents were releasing illegal aliens into the USA; all the illegals had to do was promise to appear at immigration hearings that could lead to their deportation.
U.S. border agents say Damasceno’s story is instructive because the route he took from South America is a pipeline that has delivered thousands of illegal immigrants to the USA.
The Damasceno family’s journey started Dec. 19, when Bilar, his wife, Adriana, and daughter, Yazmine, flew from Brazil to Mexico City. To pay for their trip to America, Bilar sold the bakery for $6,000.
The family then caught a flight to Hermosillo, Mexico, a town more than 200 miles south of Arizona that has become a busy staging area for illegal aliens about to enter the USA. During the trip, Damasceno says, he became aware that the United States had raised its nationwide terror alert level on Dec. 21.
U.S. border agents in Texas say the alert, which expired Jan. 9, and the increased border security that accompanied it triggered a decline in illegals crossing the border. During that time, agents say their sources in Mexico told them that hotels in Mexican border towns were brimming with Central and South Americans who had postponed their trips into the USA until the terror alert level was eased.
But not even the prospect of tighter security was enough to make Damasceno consider delaying his trip. Friends who had preceded him into the USA encouraged him to keep moving, and so Damasceno and his family piled into a taxi in Hermosillo and headed for the border.
At 11:30 p.m. Jan. 4, the family joined a group of 14 people, mostly Mexicans, and crossed into Arizona. Within two hours, U.S. agents had caught all of them.
What Damasceno didn’t know was that for at least two months, U.S. border authorities had been concerned about the hundreds of Brazilians streaming into Arizona. To discourage the flow, officials managed to set aside 100 extra beds in a detention facility.
In what proved to be bad timing for the Damascenos, and a stark example of the vagaries of border enforcement, there was just enough room in the detention facility for Bilar Damasceno. His wife and daughter, however, were given a court notice and allowed to resume their journey. They’re now in New Jersey. Damasceno has not seen or talked with his wife since they were separated Jan. 4. He learned that she and his daughter had arrived safely in New Jersey after he called relatives in Brazil to tell them he had been caught.
U.S. authorities, who have begun flying groups of detained Brazilians back home, hope that “targeted detentions” might deter other illegals from entering the USA.
But it didn’t seem to affect Damasceno. “If I’m forced to go back (to Brazil), I will go back,” he says, his eyes clouding with tears. “But in Brazil, I cannot stay. Yes, I will try to come back (to the USA). I haven’t even thought about asking my wife to go” back to Brazil.
In custody for just a few hours
There are so many illegal aliens streaming across the U.S.-Mexico border, and so few places to put them, that many captured illegals are in custody only a couple of hours before they are released into the USA, says T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council. The council is a labor association that represents about 6,000 Border Patrol agents.
“Agents are hired thinking that they are going to be law enforcement officers, only to find out that once they capture these law breakers, we’re just letting them go,” Bonner says.
“Many (agents) are wondering if they really want to put their lives on the line, if we’re just gonna let (illegals) go.”
Venturella says that besides seeking more money in 2005 for detaining and deporting illegal immigrants, Homeland Security officials are testing several programs aimed at easing the detention crunch — and their reliance on the “catch and release” policy.
Last summer, immigration and customs officials began attaching electronic monitoring bracelets to illegal aliens that the government no longer could afford to detain in Anchorage, Detroit, Miami and Seattle.
So far, nearly all of the illegals who have worn the devices have shown up for immigration court hearings. The monitoring program is scheduled to expand to eight more cities this year.
If successful, Venturella says, it could help clear detention space and more effectively manage those who have been released after agreeing to appear in court. Still, the monitoring plan does allow illegals to wander in the USA after they have been caught and released by U.S. agents.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement also has formed a special fugitive unit to pursue the more than 400,000 people who have failed to appear for deportation hearings. Venturella says the agency believes it can wipe out the backlog in five years.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Brazilian authorities have reached an agreement that they expect to result in the repatriation of about 1,000 Brazilians who, like Damasceno, are being held in detention facilities. Under the agreement, about 200 Brazilians were flown to Rio de Janeiro last week.
In U.S. border towns, officials want the federal government to kill the “catch and release” policy.
In Val Verde County, Sheriff Jernigan recalls questioning a group of illegal immigrants recently. He says he immediately suspected that one of the El Salvadoran immigrants was connected to a violent gang in California, after noticing the man had the gang’s signature tattoos.
Jernigan says that when he questioned the man and others, they produced notices ordering them to appear at immigration hearings.
But then Jernigan realized something else: The U.S. agents who had issued the notices did not include dates and times for the hearings. And the spaces where the illegal aliens were supposed to list U.S. addresses and telephone contacts were blank.
So if the illegals had intended to appear at a hearing, they wouldn’t have known when to go. And if authorities wanted to pursue the men later, they wouldn’t know where to start looking.
“It’s a complete farce,” Jernigan says. “It tells me that our doors are wide open for anyone to come in.”