Drop in immigration arrests might nix need for more jail beds

Immigration enforcement officials indicated Monday they might not need to implement a contingency contract to create additional jail beds because immigration-related arrests dropped during fiscal 2006.

As of March, Customs and Border Patrol arrests stood at a five-year high. But following President Bush's call for beefed-up border security in May, apprehensions dropped. Immigration officials speculated that increased enforcement efforts may have led to a decline in attempted border crossings.

Overall, arrests were down 8 percent from fiscal 2005 to fiscal 2006, from about 1.2 million to 1.1 million. The 2006 figure represents a three-year low.

Julie Myers, the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told reporters after a press conference Monday that as long as arrests continue to decline, the agency will not need to create more spaces in detention centers.

Still, Myers said space is limited and the agency needs to be "making sure we're using it as efficiently as possible." Currently, Halliburton subsidiary KBR has a contingency contract to build detention centers that -- if implemented -- would be worth $385 million.

In an e-mail message to Government Executive, ICE Press Secretary Dean Boyd said the KBR contract "has absolutely nothing to do with immigrant detentions on the Southwest border. It is a contingency contract that has existed for years, pre-dates ICE altogether, and is only designed as a contingency for mass-migration emergencies such as a potential mass-migration from Cuba or Haiti to South Florida. There have never been any plans to activate the contingency contract to handle the routine flow of migrants across the Southwest border." Boyd said the agency is continuing to seek out additional detention space through contracts with state and local correctional institutions and the creation of new detention facilities.

CBP has beefed up its presence in the Yuma, Ariz., sector in the past year, from about 300 officers to 730, said Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar. A Border Patrol source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said officials have noted a growing influx of illegal immigrants in Texas since the government has widely publicized efforts such as the SBInet initiative to add resources in Arizona.

DHS officials also have been more aggressive in pursuing businesses for alleged violations of immigration law. ICE reported that during the past fiscal year, it filed 716 criminal charges against employers for such violations. As recently as fiscal 2002, ICE's predecessor agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, filed just 25 such charges.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters that agencies will be "targeting businesses that systematically and willfully violate [immigration] law" with arrests, fines and possible asset seizures. However, officials acknowledge that not every employer who hires an illegal immigrant does so knowingly. Some illegal immigrants have used convincing forgeries of government documents to gain jobs.

"Document fraud is a huge problem," Myers said.

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