Chertoff calls for end to ban on deporting Salvadorans

Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff on Wednesday said Congress must immediately act to end a decades-old provision that prohibits Salvadorans from being deported.

After four months of inaction in court following the department's filing of a motion to quash the provision, DHS now is counting on lawmakers, Chertoff said. He said he would like to see legislation passed to eliminate a 1980s injunction preventing deportation of Salvadorans in the United States illegally. The civil war leading to the injunction ended in the early 1990s.

"I believe there ought to be widespread support" on Capitol Hill for the legislation, which is yet to be proposed, Chertoff told reporters. "I would like to see it passed before the midterm elections… the civil war in El Salvador is over."

From mid-May to mid-July, more than 3,700 Salvadorans were arrested and released under DHS' old catch-and-release policy. But, with the end that program, Chertoff warned that these illegal immigrants are filling already-crowded detention centers. DHS officials said 99 percent of illegal immigrants caught are now detained and that most are then deported. This is a marked improvement from 2005, when slightly more than one-third of illegals were being detained.

Already, DHS officials are mulling a variety of options to accommodate a growing population at detention centers.

Chertoff said completely ending catch-and-release procedures, in which illegal immigrants are caught but then let go after being served with paperwork to appear at a later court date, will be impossible without a reversal of the policy on Salvadorans.

Despite the challenges immigration officials face, DHS agencies can point to success in the months since President Bush's call for tighter border control, Chertoff said. Leading up to Bush's nationally televised speech in May, arrests of illegal alien Mexicans at the U.S.-Mexico border were outpacing those in recent years, according to DHS data.

But, after the anti-illegal immigration initiative was announced, those numbers fell sharply, indicating that Mexicans - the United States' largest illegal immigrant group - were becoming wary of trying to cross the border, according to Chertoff. David Aguilar, chief of the Border Patrol, said Mexican towns bordering the United States once considered a jumping-off point for groups trying to sneak past border agents have since seen a lull in activity.

"This is proof-positive of the deterrent effect of the catch and remove policy," Chertoff said.

In addition, "other-than-Mexican" arrests have decreased about 60 percent, to 6,400 in mid-July from about 16,400 the same time the previous year. Arrests of non-Mexican illegal immigrants are approaching a four-year low, DHS data shows.

Still, DHS' border protection agencies are trying to recruit as aggressively as possible.

Aguilar said the agency has made progress in meeting the president's goal of hiring 6,000 more Border Patrol agents by the end of fiscal year 2008. There are currently 700 agents being trained, and already this fiscal year, 900 have completed training, he said.

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