More than 70 percent of the 98,000 illegal aliens detained so far this year by the U.S. Border Patrol from countries other than Mexico were released almost immediately onto the streets of America because of a lack of detention facilities, federal authorities said yesterday.
Under questioning by members of two Senate subcommittees, Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar said agents in Texas alone were experiencing a near threefold increase in the number of illegals known as "other than Mexican," or OTMs.
But because of a lack of detention beds, he said, "there is no place to put them."
"We interdict them, process them and then hand them off," Chief Aguilar said.
Chief Aguilar, whose agency does not oversee the detention program, called the "exponential growth" in the number of OTMs and their subsequent release "a major source of clogging and friction for the removal process."
The chief acknowledged to Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security, that because of a lack of intelligence data, some OTMs released may have been criminals.
The panels also are concerned that some of the OTMs come from nations identified as state sponsors of terrorism, although most come from Central and South America, Europe and Asia.
Wesley Lee, head of detention and removal operations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), acknowledged a lack of detention space, but declined to say how many beds he needed or what they would cost.
He told Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, during a rancorous exchange that of the 19,500 beds now available for all criminal aliens and others facing deportation, only 2,500 were dedicated to OTMs and "they are filled."
Mr. Lee said a new ICE program known as "expedited removal," which speeds the deportation process, was seeking to free up additional bed space.
"I think you may have reached the tipping point, and once these folks know you're not going to do anything about them, the numbers are going to go up," Mr. Sessions said, noting that some OTMs were chasing down Border Patrol agents in Texas to surrender in exchange for a "notice to appear" at an immigration hearing, giving them a legal reason to be in the country.
"And then, of course, they never show up. Is anybody working on this? Is anybody in charge?" Mr. Sessions asked. "Do you have a vision to indicate that this utter failure will end?"
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, border security and citizenship, said arrests of OTMs at the southern border were reaching record levels and some have been identified as being from countries identified as sponsors of terrorism.
"The vast majority of illegal OTMs are simply given a notice to appear letter and released into our country because we lack the facilities to hold them," Mr. Cornyn said. "Whether in Texas, Arizona, California or anywhere else ... this state of affairs is unacceptable and needs to change."
A lack of funding and manpower at federal detention centers nationwide has forced Border Patrol agents into what they angrily call a "catch-and-release" policy, under which apprehended OTMs are turned loose because they have overwhelmed the number of available beds.
About 12 percent of those who receive the letters, which Border Patrol agents sardonically refer to as "notices to disappear," ever show up, records show, with some Texas Border Patrol sectors reporting no-show rates as high as 98 percent.
Mexicans caught in the United States illegally are bused back within a few hours, but OTMs must be flown to their home countries, a process that often takes months.