Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's push for Congress to end a provision prohibiting the deportation of most illegal immigrants from El Salvador may become a hot-button political issue. Rather than reversing the provision before November's midterm congressional elections, lawmakers may instead seek to provide DHS with additional funding for detention facilities.
The provisions were enacted two decades during a civil war in El Salvador. That conflict, Chertoff has pointed out, ended in the 1990s.
DHS officials say they have spent nearly $250 million this fiscal year to detain Salvadorans.
"The average stay for El Salvador nationals caught at the border is 65 days, at an average cost of $95 per night," said DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen, compared to one- to three-week stays for other non-Mexicans. Mexicans are deported even more expeditiously.
Some Salvadorans are released back into the United States; others are sent to other nations, said Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Ernestine Fobbs. The other countries must agree to accept them.
It's unclear where legislation of the type Chertoff is pushing would originate on Capitol Hill.
"That's probably our jurisdiction," said a source on the House Judiciary Committee, who added, "I've heard a lot of grumbling about this from the [Bush] administration" for the past six months.
However, the source said, despite Chertoff's call for the legislation to be passed before the November midterm elections, no action has been taken in the committee to have a bill ready when lawmakers return from summer recess.
Some members of Congress might balk at Chertoff's call to end the provision. There is still a lot of sympathy among Hispanics in the United States for the plight of Salvadorans -- who, despite the end of the civil war there, still face social strife in their homeland.
Rather than jeopardize Hispanic votes, lawmakers could seek to beef up funding for DHS' detention centers. Such funds could be used either to build new facilities or to rent additional space.
"We may construct some new detention facilities, but there is excess bed capacity in state and local facilities that is available to the extent we can afford it," said a DHS source who works regularly with lawmakers.