Vowing to end the "catch and release" method of dealing with many illegal immigrants who cross into the United States on the country's southwest border, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a Senate panel Tuesday that the Bush administration backs a comprehensive approach to deter illegal entries that includes a temporary worker program.
"Our goal at DHS is to completely eliminate the 'catch and release' enforcement problem, and return every single illegal entrant--no exceptions," Chertoff said. He said DHS is working with the State Department to develop a "catch and return" policy.
Chertoff said additional funding from Congress has allowed Homeland Security to begin hiring 1,500 new Border Patrol agents. Four hundred recently hired agents are training at the agency's Artesia, N.M., academy. Chertoff also said Homeland Security would "continue to focus on additional growth in agent staffing" for the Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureaus.
"Significant and measurable progress" should be achieved in ending "catch and release" in less than a year, Chertoff said. The overall system for guarding the border is "in desperate need of repair," he said.
After funding shortages at ICE resulted in an overloaded detention system, in June 2004 the agency began implementing the "catch and release" policy, under which certain illegal immigrants are simply released into the U.S. population.
Chertoff said that "parts of the system have nearly collapsed under the weight of numbers" of illegal immigrants, and noted that 80 percent of non-Mexicans apprehended at the border are released due to shortages of space at detention facilities.
Chris Simcox, president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, an all-volunteer effort by civilians to secure the U.S. borders, said Chertoff's proposal doesn't go far enough.
"Ending the 'catch and release' policy is a much needed Band-Aid, yet it does not address the overwhelming problem posed by our wide open borders," Simcox said.
The recently passed fiscal 2006 Homeland Security appropriations bill includes $940 million in funding that will allow for the hiring of 1,000 new Border Patrol agents in addition to the 500 hired last year, Chertoff said in his testimony. The bill also allows for 1,920 new beds at detention facilities, 250 new ICE investigators and 8 new fugitive operations teams.
Chertoff said that history has shown that concerted efforts to remove illegal aliens attempting to gain employment in the United States, along with a focus on controlling the border and establishing a temporary worker program, provides a deterrent to illegal immigration.
Legislation proposed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., would encourage unauthorized immigrants to receive temporary work permits for six years, while a competing bill proposed by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., involves returning illegal immigrants to their home countries before they seek temporary U.S. work permits.
While the Bush administration strongly supports a temporary worker program, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, who testified before the panel with Chertoff, declined to back either specific proposal.