Non-Mexican migrants swamp immigration, border agencies

Record numbers of non-Mexican migrants are being caught illegally trying to enter the United States, raising national security concerns, overwhelming federal agencies, and leaving legislators and law enforcement authorities grappling with how to handle the situation.

So far this fiscal year, the Border Patrol has apprehended almost 100,000 undocumented migrants from countries other than Mexico - commonly called OTMs. The majority were caught along the southern border. That number is projected to reach about 150,000 by the end of this fiscal year, which is a 200 percent increase compared to fiscal 2004, according to the Border Patrol.

"The numbers are staggering," said Border Patrol spokesman Salvador Zamora.

The Border Patrol is on pace to apprehend about 1.2 million illegal immigrants this fiscal year, which is about the same as last year. Out of that, about 12 percent are OTMs, which represent a small -- but growing -- portion of undocumented immigrants caught illegally entering the country.

The situation has also created a human rights disaster, with hundreds of people dying in the southern desert each year trying to sneak across the border. Citizen groups also are patrolling border lands, contending that the federal government has failed to protect the borders and enforce immigration laws. Organizers of the groups say they will continue their operations until the federal government does more.

Lawmakers, policymakers and federal law enforcement officials are grappling with how to handle the situation. Some now say that an approach based primarily on law enforcement no longer works, and argue that fundamental change in U.S. immigration policy is needed, such as a guest-worker program that legally recognizes migrants who come to the United States for work and pose no threat.

Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., plan to introduce what they say will be "comprehensive immigration reform" legislation by the end of this month. The bill is tentatively titled the Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act. They already have published the first section, which deals with enforcement.

Cornyn is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship. Kyl is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security.

"The current border crisis has been years in the making, but it now appears to have reached a critical mass," Kyl said during a joint hearing of the subcommittees Tuesday.

Cornyn added: "What we are proposing is we not only enhance border security to deal with people as they come across illegally, but we're also going to provide resources for interior enforcement … and then we're also going to [create] a workable mechanism for prospective employers to deal with prospective employees who can legally work in the country."

Policy Drift

Enforcement of border and immigration law falls to the Homeland Security Department's bureaus of Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. CBP is responsible for enforcement along the border, while ICE handles interior enforcement.

C. Stewart Verdery Jr., former DHS assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy and planning, said he was skeptical of a guest-worker program when President Bush first announced one in January 2004. "But two years in the trenches has convinced me that I was wrong," Verdery said during the hearing. "It is the passage of a properly developed and properly funded guest-worker program that will bring massive improvements to border security, and thus homeland security."

He added that implementing an effective program will be expensive. Millions of migrants will have to be vetted, placing new requirements on consular officials and ports of entry. The U.S. government also may have to increase resources to help U.S. residents prove their citizenship when applying for jobs.

"This is not going to take some kind of plus-up or shuffling money around," Verdery said. "If you want to build out an expansive system that can handle the influx, it's going to take a massive new amount of money."

CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner told Government Executive in May that the Border Patrol is "overwhelmed." According to Bonner, most people illegally crossing the southern border are "economic migrants" seeking any kind of work. He said a guest-worker program would give those migrants a legal way to enter the country and help the Border Patrol focus on apprehending criminals or those who mean to do the country harm. He added that the country also needs a beefed-up sanctions program for employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers.

National Security Concerns

Concerns about OTMs from special interest countries -- such as Iraq, Syria and Iran -- were amplified, however, when former Homeland Security Deputy Secretary James Loy testified in February before the Senate Intelligence Committee on national security threats to the United States.

"Recent information from ongoing investigations, detentions and emerging threat streams strongly suggest that al Qaeda has considered using the Southwest border to infiltrate the United States," Loy said in written testimony. "Several al Qaeda leaders believe operatives can pay their way into the country through Mexico, and also believe illegal entry is more advantageous than legal entry for operational security reasons."

CBP spokesmen told Government Executive in May that they are concerned terrorists might try to exploit the southern border, but they have no specific information such incidents have occurred.

Mexican nationals caught illegally trying to enter the country are bused back to the border if they do not have a criminal record. OTMs, however, are sent to ICE detention centers, where they are released into the U.S. public if they do not have a felony conviction and do not pose a threat to national security. ICE is required by law to release illegal aliens who pose no threat. Those migrants are given a notice to appear in court. Border Patrol agents call it "a notice to disappear."

ICE has released about 1 million illegal aliens into the country to date. Out of that, about 465,000 never showed up for their court hearing, and about 85,000 have criminal records.

Bonner said releasing illegal immigrants is counterproductive to border security.

"I can tell you that when you do that, the message goes down to El Salvador, to Brazil - frankly, to China - that if you get across the border, surrender yourself to the Border Patrol, because you're going to be released, you're going to get walking papers," Bonner said.

"It's a mindless cycle and we need to break it," he added.

But ICE couldn't hold everybody if it wanted to. The agency's Office of Detention and Removal can only hold up to 22,000 detainees, 85 percent of which are mandatory holds.

"The reality is you cannot lock up every single person who comes across the border illegally because the system was not set up that way," said ICE spokesman Manny Van Pelt. "The reality is there isn't enough prison space in the United States."

Alternative Proposals

Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar testified on Tuesday that his agency wants to expand a process known as expedited removal to all its sectors. The process allows illegal immigrants to be more quickly processed and transported back to their home countries, reducing the amount of time that they are held in U.S. detention centers from more than 80 days to an average of 26 days.

"Agents are frustrated out there," Aguilar said. "But I can tell you that the reason that this is happening is because of the lack of detention space."

The Border Patrol launched expedited removal nine months ago at its sectors in Tucson, Ariz., and Laredo, Texas. Aguilar said expanding the program to other southern border sectors is "coming soon." When pressed, he said "within a matter of months," but added that DHS has to approve expanding the program.

Some also say that major structural changes are needed. The Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Heritage Foundation released a report in December arguing that ICE and CBP should be merged. Janice Kephart, former counsel to the 9/11 commission and author of a staff report on terrorist travel, has been telling Congress that a new Department of Immigration and Border Protection should be created. She says border security remains "woefully inadequate" and gets shortchanged compared to other priorities within DHS.

Organizers of civilian border patrols are trying to stir up a national movement. They plan to establish citizen camps in all southern border states by this fall, as well as some northern border states. They also plan to picket employers in the country who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. They say they will continue the camps until the government orders the military or National Guard to secure the borders. They also want a 400 percent increase in the budgets for ICE and CBP.

Although CBP initially criticized the patrols, Bonner told lawmakers in May that his agency is evaluating whether it can make effective use of citizen volunteers.

Said Bonner: "We want any kind of force multiplier we can get."

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