- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2008

The Department of Homeland Security, continuing to enforce what it calls a “strict policy of arresting, prosecuting and jailing” illegal immigrants, deported a record number of those caught on the nation’s borders last year — more than 280,000 in fiscal year 2007 compared with 186,000 a year earlier.

It was the largest number of illegals ever removed from the country in a single year.

The increase is attributable to what veteran law-enforcement authorities said is a revised apprehension process, adding that the department no longer is targeting only criminal illegals for removal, but seeks eventually to apprehend, charge and deport all those who cross illegally into the United States.

To that end, Homeland Security has initiated “Operation Streamline” along some sectors of the U.S.-Mexico border, which brings illegal immigrants into the U.S. criminal justice system, where they are prosecuted either for a misdemeanor on their first offense or a felony if they have been caught before.

“Under this program, individuals who are caught at certain designated high-traffic, high-risk zones are prosecuted and, if convicted, are jailed,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said at a recent press briefing.

Mr. Chertoff noted that between October and December, the Justice Department prosecuted 1,200 cases under the new program and, as a consequence, apprehension rates dropped nearly 70 percent in those areas.

“When people who cross the border illegally are brought to face the reality that they are committing a crime, even if it is just a misdemeanor, that has a huge impact on their willingness to try again and on the willingness of others to break the law coming across the border,” he said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswoman Ernestine Fobbs said the agency’s Office of Detention and Removal Operations deported to 195 countries a total of 280,523 illegal immigrants during fiscal 2007 — which ended Sept. 30.

Through Feb. 18 of fiscal 2008, she said, the agency has removed 94,237 illegal immigrants.

But Operation Streamline is active only in particular areas along the Arizona and Texas borders, enforced by agents from ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection who seek to end the so-called “catch-and-release” of illegal immigrants along popular smuggling corridors.

Under the program, illegals caught entering the country are fingerprinted, prosecuted and can spend up to 180 days in jail.

Prior to the program, illegal immigrants from Mexico who did not have a criminal history were returned to their home country almost immediately, without jail time or a formal deportation order. Apprehended illegal immigrants identified as “other than Mexican,” or OTMs, were given notices to appear at a future deportation hearing. The notices were referred to by the U.S. Border Patrol as “notices to disappear,” since only about 13 percent ever showed up.

On average, about half of those caught at the Southwest border are Mexican nationals. Currently, they face formal deportation procedures only in those limited areas covered by Operation Streamline or if they have been identified as convicted criminals.

Ms. Fobbs said that during fiscal 2007, a total of 136,712 Mexican nationals were returned home — 67,793 of whom were identified as criminal illegals.

Despite the praise it has received from members of Congress, Operation Streamline is not without its drawbacks and its future expansion is in doubt without a significant increase in federal funding.

The U.S. Marshals Service, which is responsible for returning illegal immigrants to their countries of origin, is strapped for both resources and manpower to conduct the program. The Justice Department, asked to prosecute the newly charged illegals, lacks the manpower to get the job done.

Congress appropriated $22 million to hire additional prosecutors, support staff and deputy U.S. marshals, and the administration is seeking $100 million for the Southwest Border Enforcement Initiative — to hire additional people to support the increased prosecutions.

Law-enforcement officials, however, also point to a lack of detention space as a critical concern, noting that border detention facilities already are overburdened by rising drug, sex and violent-crime cases. An internal report by the Marshals Service in January said “the sheer number of prisoners” along the border “makes finding sufficient detention space on a daily basis particularly challenging.”

But the mission to apprehend convicted felons among those illegally in the U.S. remains a department priority. The agency now identifies and screens criminal illegals incarcerated in federal, state and local jails nationwide to ensure they are processed for removal at the completion of their terms.

In fiscal 2007, ICE initiated formal removal proceedings on 164,000 illegal immigrants serving prison terms for crimes they committed in the U.S., and has begun more than 55,000 formal removal proceedings against additional criminal illegals in the first quarter of fiscal 2008.

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