Chertoff: Immigrant detention facilities under strain

The Homeland Security Department soon may need to either buy additional space in existing jails to detain apprehended illegal immigrants or implement a $385 million contingency contract to build more detention centers, sources told Government Executive Tuesday.

Unless lawmakers revoke a provision that prevents the deportation of Salvadorans, a contingency contract already agreed upon with Halliburton subsidiary KBR may be put into effect to offset the amount of space being taken up by arrested Salvadorans, one of the sources said.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told lawmakers in written testimony for a House Homeland Security Committee hearing Tuesday that Salvadorans' "presence puts a strain on our detention facilities at a tremendous cost." He thanked the House for passing legislation that would do away with the provision. The Senate has yet to take action on the bill (H.R. 6094).

At Tuesday's hearing, Rep. Stevan Pearce, R-N.M., told Chertoff that detention space for illegal immigrants is in short supply in his district, which borders Mexico.

"We're at the threshold where it begins to deteriorate," he said.

Pearce is not the first lawmaker to push DHS officials to fix detention problems; another Republican congressman, Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, told Julie Myers, head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency within DHS, during a July hearing that "there's no place to put" illegal immigrants.

"Space has always been an issue; it was the cause of the catch-and-release program," said one senior Border Patrol source who works on the Southwestern border with Mexico. "It's always been killing us."

Another DHS source said an abundance of space is available in existing facilities, but the department would need to rent it.

This source said the department is still pushing to meet its goal of having nearly 28,000 beds at jails for arrested illegal immigrants. "All we really need is money," the source said, adding that "there is excess bed capacity in state and local facilities that is available to the extent we can afford it."

But there is a possibility that "we may construct some new detention facilities," the source said.

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