- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Department of Homeland Security yesterday said it will expedite the removal of non-Mexican illegal aliens from the United States, while allowing “legitimate” Mexican visitors to stay in the country for up to 30 days instead of the current 72-hour limit.

“We want to send a clear message that those individuals who follow legal immigration procedures will benefit while those who choose to break our nation’s immigration laws will be promptly removed,” Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson said in announcing the border plan.

The plan focuses on a growing number of foreign nationals using the Mexican border to enter the United States illegally — as well as the burden they place on the immigration court system.

More than 42,000 illegal aliens from countries other than Mexico, called OTMs by Homeland Security, have been arrested along the U.S.-Mexico border in the past 16 months. Under existing policy, they are detained for processing in U.S. immigration courts, which can take more than a year. Mexican nationals caught at the border generally are returned home immediately.

The announcement came a day before President Bush was scheduled to campaign in Arizona, considered a battleground state. Mr. Bush has vigorously sought the Hispanic vote.

The extension for Mexican visitors with Laser Visa border-crossing cards has long been sought by the Mexican government and border-state politicians concerned about cross-border trade. About 425,000 Mexican nationals hold laser cards.

The biometric and machine-readable Laser Visa cards allow visitors who have undergone criminal background checks to enter the United States to make “positive contributions” to the U.S. economy. Current rules limit cardholders to visits of up to 72 hours within 25 miles along the border in Texas, New Mexico and California and 75 miles of the border in Arizona. The new plan extends the time limit, but does not affect the 25- and 75-mile restrictions.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, who introduced a bill last year to extend the visitation period for Mexican nationals to six months — the same as Canadians — called the 30-day rule “a positive step in the right direction,” although he noted it was “not yet where we want to be.”

Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, described expedited removals as “a start,” but said it was like “treating a patient who is bleeding to death with a Band-Aid.”

“For over a year, we have been hearing from Border Patrol agents about the huge increase in the number of individuals from countries other than Canada and Mexico crossing our borders illegally,” he said. “Even the most conservative estimates of the number of folks getting by the Border Patrol are two or three times the number caught.

“When you add up all the ifs, ands or buts associated with this proposal — well, it really isn’t much of a proposal,” he said.

Expedited removals have been used for Mexican nationals since 1997. Mr. Hutchinson said their expansion would speed the removal of illegal aliens caught trying to enter the United States by fraudulent means or while attempting to elude Border Patrol agents. He said the new plan will apply only to those caught within 100 miles of the Mexican border, and only if they are apprehended within their first 14 days in the United States.

Mr. Hutchinson said illegal aliens from countries other than Mexico who are apprehended will be placed in expedited removal proceedings and returned to their home countries as soon as circumstances allow. They will not be released into the United States and will not be provided a hearing before an immigration judge unless they are determined to have a credible fear of return, he said.

He said captured aliens who seek asylum will be referred to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) asylum officer to determine whether they have a “credible fear” before being removed from the expedited removal process.

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