SAN DIEGO — Handcuffed and shackled with their pockets pulled inside out, more than 150 illegal aliens are loaded onto an airplane every night, bound for detention centers in the United States to await deportation orders to their home countries.
Searched by a cadre of uniformed federal agents and encircled by heavily armed officers, they are herded off buses in the dead of night on an isolated tarmac at San Diego International Airport, where they silently shuffle single file on board a waiting MD-82 jetliner.
Some never have been on an airplane. Others have made the trip before. Many will be back.
A monthlong investigation by The Washington Times found that a shortage of detention space and lack of manpower force federal authorities to regularly release illegal aliens back on the streets of America — and often to ignore requests to pick up illegals in the custody of state and local officials.
“There’s no question we need more detention space, more people and more equipment to get the job done,” said J. Michael Vaughn, a detention and deportation supervisor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Los Angeles. His processing center handles between 3,000 and 4,500 illegals a month.
“If we are the final step in an immigration-enforcement system that seeks to remove from the country those people who do not legally belong, we need some help. I assure you: The battle is being fought right here,” Mr. Vaughn said.
ICE, hamstrung by long-standing budgetary constraints that have left its detention and removal program seriously undermanned and underfunded, has 20,000 beds available at ICE-managed and -contracted detention centers nationwide — not enough to house the aliens in custody on a daily basis.
And that shortfall comes at a time when ICE, led by the agency’s 18 fugitive operations squads, is vigorously hunting 80,000 criminal aliens and more than 320,000 “absconders,” foreign nationals who were ordered deported but disappeared. Meantime, the Border Patrol is expected to arrest a million illegal aliens this year.
As for the estimated 8 million to 12 million illegals living and working in the United States, no one is really trying to find them. Even if anyone was, there is no place to put them.
Hundreds of Mexican nationals, arrested everyday by federal authorities as they try to illegally enter the United States and by state and local police during routine crime investigations, are released back onto American or to the Mexican side of border towns because of the detention-space shortage.
Frustrated Border Patrol agents call the system “catch and release,” and they, along with state and local police, say ICE detention officials consistently turn away aliens who they’ve apprehended, citing a lack of manpower or space.
Many released illegals get written notices to appear for an immigration hearing, although records show that more than 85 percent never appear. Those notices are referred to by ICE and Border Patrol agents as “run letters.”
The lack of detention space has created a hazardous situation for agents in the field, said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents the agency’s 10,000 nonsupervisory agents.
Mr. Bonner said the number of illegals being apprehended is so high that many are being detained for only a few hours before being released — only to be rearrested later.
State and local authorities who house illegal aliens for an average payment of about $54 a day release many of them because detention bills are going unpaid. Others complain that “unrealistic detention standards” imposed by the federal government, such as special ethnic meals and legal libraries, have made it impossible to house the aliens.
“The question becomes evident: Why are so many agents putting their lives on the line everyday if the option is letting them go free anyway?” Mr. Bonner said.
At the San Diego airport, ICE Supervisor Jonas “J.J.” Reyes, West Coast coordinator for the government’s Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System (JPATS), counts heads and directs traffic, constantly barking into a cell phone: Three out of Phoenix. Forty-eight out of Las Vegas. Forty to San Diego. Eight to Los Angeles. Another 68 for San Diego.
With the city’s skyline shimmering in the darkness and the whine of the awaiting jet making normal conversation nearly impossible, Mr. Reyes telephones one of his agents in Oakland. It’s shortly after 1:30 a.m., and the agent has been waiting for permission to start another load of illegal aliens south.
“Go,” Mr. Reyes says as the jet here taxies off the tarmac. His attention is focused on the white, unmarked jetliner as it moves quickly down the runway, gaining speed. Suddenly, it’s airborne and disappears in the cloud cover.
“We’re clear,” he says, giving thumbs up to a dozen of his agents as they head through the airport and home. “Just another 12-hour day doing what we do, moving people, more than ever before. We just can’t seem to stop this flow.”
Tonight’s aircraft, leased by ICE from JPATS, is carrying 176 foreign nationals to ICE detention centers in Eloy and Florence, Ariz., where the aliens will be housed, processed and readied for return trips home — when, and if, ordered to be removed by a federal immigration judge.
At about the same time the next day, more than 150 other illegal aliens will be herded off the same buses, walked across the same tarmac and escorted on board the same airplane by the same team of agents, with Mr. Reyes shouting new numbers into a cell phone.
“I guess that’s what they call job security,” he says.
More than two dozen ICE and Border Patrol supervisors and agents interviewed from California to Florida say the government’s lack of adequate funding for detention and removal of illegal aliens is consistent with a long-standing failure by lawmakers in Washington to fund enforcement of U.S. immigration law.
They say the defunct U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which formerly headed the interior-enforcement program, chronically shortchanged manpower requests to oversee detained aliens and never funded the processing centers necessary to house them while they await the many immigration hearings guaranteed under federal statutes.
“The government gave up a long time ago trying to detain and deport the vast majority of illegal aliens now in the United States,” said a veteran ICE supervisor in Los Angeles, who formerly worked for INS. “We never had the money or the people to get the job done, and now they want to target thousands of criminal aliens and absconders.
“I believe they are making new efforts to get more resources, but it’s going to take some time and a lot of effort,” the supervisor said.
In addition to funding problems, ICE’s detention and removal efforts are under attack by an army of immigration lawyers who are well-versed at keeping the government at bay and by pro-immigration groups that have won victories for aliens seeking to avoid deportation.
In June, the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), which calls itself the nation’s premier Hispanic civil rights organization, took credit for blocking passage of two amendments to the Department of Homeland Security’s appropriations bill that it viewed as anti-immigration.
The amendments, by Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, would have compelled state and local police to detain illegals or lose federal funding and would have denied funds to any state that permitted illegal aliens to obtain driver’s licenses or comparable identification.
“Turning local police officers into de facto immigration agents would have a chilling effect on community policing and officer relationships with the Latino community,” Katherine Culliton, MALDEF’s legislative staff lawyer, said.
In a pending lawsuit, pro-immigration and civil rights groups seek to stop the government from entering immigration information into a national crime database, saying it was misused in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
Filed in U.S. District Court in New York, the suit said the Justice Department and the FBI unlawfully entered civil immigration information into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), subjecting immigrants to the risk of unlawful arrest by state and local police. The suit also questioned the authority of Attorney General John Ashcroft to enlist state and local police in enforcing federal immigration law.
Joining in the suit were the National Council of La Raza, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Latin American Workers Project, the New York Immigration Coalition and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.
The NCIC database includes 40 million felons, fugitives and others sought by federal law enforcement and was expanded after September 11 to include illegal aliens who failed to show up for deportation hearings. Mr. Ashcroft said the database helped lead to the arrest of eight suspected terrorists, including a member of al Qaeda.
Last month, La Raza President Raul Yzaguirre called on the Bush administration to order an end to the Border Patrol’s arrest of illegals in several inland Southern California communities, saying sweeps by a 12-member task force were “a clear assault on civil rights in an area with a sizable Latino population.”
In response, Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson met privately with Democratic lawmakers and issued a statement saying the department would consider “sensitivities” when making similar arrests in the future.
Mr. Hutchinson said that although the arrests were “within their legal authority,” they had not been approved in advance and violated long-standing policy giving the Border Patrol a “clear border nexus.” He did not elaborate, but told the lawmakers, who challenged the arrests as racial profiling, that immigration enforcement in the interior was the responsibility of ICE.
ICE officials, however, have acknowledged they lack the resources to target the estimated 8 million to 12 million illegals in the United States and focus on criminal aliens and absconders.
In October 2002, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General said INS cost taxpayers millions annually because of its inability to identify and deport illegals held in federal, state and local prisons — estimated at more than 25 percent of the country’s total inmate population.
In a report, the agency said the INS had not “effectively managed” a program to identify criminal aliens as soon as they served prison terms and was unable to determine the nationwide population of foreign-born inmates or to identify and process deportable inmates. It said illegal aliens improperly released had gone on to commit new crimes, many serious and often violent.
In March, Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia, who heads ICE, told the House Appropriations Committee that because of expanded enforcement capabilities, the daily population of detainees had grown to more than 20,000, from less than 6,000 just 10 years ago.
Noting that ICE had detained more than 230,000 aliens and removed about 140,00 from the United States since the agency’s creation in March 2003, he said the Office of Detention and Removal had the best opportunity for progress as he and others seek increased resources and manpower.
“Getting the bad guys off the street is the first thing we want to do,” Mr. Garcia said, noting that President Bush’s fiscal 2005 budget request of $1.2 billion for detention and removal — an increase of $125 million — would “enhance public safety and national security by ensuring the departure from the United States of removable aliens.”
The key word here is “removable,” which means those aliens who have been ordered deported and whose whereabouts are known.
But Dan Stein, executive director of the District-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, described Mr. Bush’s budget request for detention and removal as “proof positive the administration still is not taking immigration enforcement and national security seriously.”
“The continuing catch-and-release program, which has been the hallmark of U.S. immigration enforcement for decades, must come to an end,” Mr. Stein said, adding that Mr. Bush needed to adopt a “seamless, holistic approach to border control” that includes deterrence, detection, apprehension, detention and deportation.
The big crunch
David A. Kollus, who heads ICE’s Service Processing Center in Florence, Ariz., is one of those who daily faces the crunch of massive illegal immigration. He is responsible for processing more than 20,000 people each year through a revamped World War II facility designed for German and Italian prisoners in the Arizona desert, 60 miles south of Phoenix.
“We process more people right now than anyone else in the country, but I expect even those numbers will increase as border enforcement expands,” Mr. Kollus said of his 1,000-bed complex, which handles foreign nationals from as many as 45 countries, about half of whom are from Mexico.
Mr. Kollus said detainees remain there for two to three weeks, until an immigration judge decides on deportation.
“The detention officers here are well-trained, experienced and know what to do to maintain a controlled environment while still affording the detainees their rights,” said Mr. Kollus, whose center has been fully accredited by the American Correctional Association for a dozen years. “We have never had a violent incident here.”
But the potential is there, he acknowledged, because about 80 percent of detainees are convicted felons and include violent gang members. Many detainees have spent the past five to 10 years in federal and state prisons in the United States. The most dangerous wear red jumpsuits.
More funding is necessary to meet anticipated annual increases in detainees, Mr. Kollus said.
“This is not the glamorous branch of enforcement, but we are getting more than we used to in terms of resources,” he said. “And that’s important because the battle is being fought right here, and increases need to be made all the way down the line.”
Mr. Kollus said he needs as many as 2,000 beds — double the current size.
Most aliens held in ICE detention nationwide are Mexican nationals, who will be processed and then deported. They will stay in the centers for an average of 12 to 14 days.
Other foreign nationals now detained, known as OTMs (other than Mexican), will spend an average of 44 to 60 days in custody before being removed. Some will be transported home on JPATS flights or commercial jets.
Detained Mexican nationals have the option of being returned home as part of a repatriation program aimed at reducing illegal border crossings by recent returnees. They can volunteer to be returned home via charter flights from Tucson, Ariz., to either Mexico City or Guadalajara, where a bus will meet them for the final leg.
ICE leases two JPATS aircraft, including pilots and attendants, to transport aliens. Managed by the U.S. Marshals Service, JPATS is one of the largest transporters of prisoners in the world, handling more than 1,000 requests a day to move prisoners between judicial districts, correctional institutions and foreign countries.
More than 270,000 transports a year of prisoners and aliens are completed by the JPATS fleet, which consists of three Boeing 727s, four MD-82s and several smaller jets. Many of the planes were acquired through government-surplus programs or asset forfeiture. They represent the only government-operated, regularly scheduled passenger airline in the nation.
But Mr. Reyes thinks ICE should have its own aircraft, saying the agency accounts for about 75 percent of JPATS flights and that if it had two aircraft of its own, “we could eliminate the middleman and be more efficient.”
Based on budget constraints, that’s not likely to happen.
Once illegal aliens are moved to processing centers, they are maintained under strict standards, said Paul G. Santos, assistant officer in charge at ICE’s San Pedro, Calif., detention facility.
Mr. Santos is responsible for ensuring the detainees are housed in accord with standards adopted by the Department of Homeland Security that are higher than those in federal and state prisons.
The standards mandate types of meals served, medical services available, ability to use law libraries and prepare legal documents, recreational opportunities and access to religious services, he said, “regardless of the number of practitioners, whether the religion is mainstream, Western or Eastern, or other such factors.”
Detainees, Mr. Santos said, also must have access to telephones and be allowed private visits with lawyers. They are encouraged to visit with family and friends. They have access to groups with information on immigration law, rights and procedures. They have the right to file grievances, which will be heard by a committee without reprisals.
The standards were issued in July 2003 to address criticisms by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, which questioned treatment of foreign nationals held on immigration charges after the September 11 attacks.
In June, ICE began a pilot project for about 1,600 noncriminal detainees that provides “a compassionate alternative for eligible aliens” and includes electronic-monitoring devices, home and work visits and reporting by telephone.
Part One: Aliens hiding in plain site
Part two: Outnumbered in a hunt for aliens