Border agency weighs options to handle surge in detainees

The Customs and Border Protection agency is considering a variety of methods to accommodate what is expected to be a surge in illegal immigrants detained, including holding those arrested on ships to await trial, a source within the agency said.

CBP last month called upon managers to meet and discuss possible methods of handling potentially tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who are jailed as they await deportation or a trial, said a source with firsthand knowledge of the discussions.

The bureau is considering either buying out-of-service cruise ships or leasing them to create "detention barges" at sea, the source said. The barges would act as jails, housing alleged violators of U.S. immigration law.

Because the cruise industry is not as profitable as it once was, CBP may get a bargain on ship space that has passed its prime, the source said. And, as the need for additional beds for detainees could only exist on a short-term basis, having a contract that creates more jail space for illegal immigrants will prove less costly than having to build new jails, the source said.

When the Federal Emergency Management Agency was pressed for housing space to accommodate Hurricane Katrina evacuees last year, it chartered three Carnival Cruise ships for months to provide shelter for up to 7,000 people.

Other ideas pitched by CBP managers included leasing additional space in jails in areas known to be well-populated with illegal immigrants, and building new facilities.

CBP and the Homeland Security Department did not respond to calls for comment. Carnival Cruise Lines, when contacted by Government Executive, also declined to comment.

In a May 15 speech on border security, President Bush said 4,000 additional beds will be needed by the end of fiscal 2006, and it is expected that thousands more will be necessary over the coming years.

There are about 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. CBP officials expect that thousands, if not tens of thousands, more will have to be detained as the "catch-and-release" method of handling those apprehended is ended and a more aggressive strategy is implemented.

Under "catch-and-release," those who are arrested are given a court date and told to return for a trial, and possible deportation. CBP sources, as well as the president in his May 15 speech, say that many skip their court dates and continue to stay in the United States illegally.

A second source familiar with CBP management issues, who does not work within the agency, noted that the cruise ship method could be used only in select areas. Furthermore, the need for more jail space for detainees will likely persist instead of subsiding, the source said, which will necessitate having more facilities built.

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