- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2006

The Bush administration said yesterday it has nearly ended catch-and-release on the southern border in the past few weeks, has almost tripled the number of criminal arrests this year of employers who hire illegal aliens, and will gain operational control of the border by 2008, two years earlier than expected.

“With respect to every population, except for one, we have achieved essentially 100 percent catch-and-remove,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a House appropriations panel yesterday.

The policy of releasing non-Mexican illegal aliens and hoping they return to be deported, known as “catch-and-release,” had become a symbol of how dysfunctional the immigration-enforcement system is. About 85 percent of non-Mexican illegal aliens used to be released, and few ever showed up for deportation.

But Mr. Chertoff said a recent infusion of money, President Bush’s decision to have the National Guard aid the U.S. Border Patrol and a commitment to better turnaround times for deporting illegal aliens has allowed the department to detain almost all non-Mexican illegal aliens they catch. He also said it has deterred some illegal aliens from trying to cross. Catch-and-release doesn’t apply to Mexican aliens, who are routinely sent back across the border.

The enforcement numbers come as the president is trying to convince Congress he is making progress on border security, hoping that House Republicans will then agree to pass a broader immigration bill that includes a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for millions of illegal aliens.

Lawmakers, though, were skeptical. They told Mr. Chertoff they don’t know whether they can trust his department to administer the massive program that would be required to legalize the estimated 12 million-to-20 million illegal aliens in part because they have been so ineffective in securing the borders.

“If we’re ever going to someday get to a comprehensive immigration policy, you have to succeed first at a border-security plan, and no one that I know really has confidence that you can do this,” said Rep. John E. Sweeney, New York Republican.

In a later hearing yesterday before the immigration panel of the House Judiciary Committee, Michael Maxwell, a former employee at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that agency is not ready to handle the additional workload because it suffers from rampant corruption and cannot detect fraud.

Rep. John Hostettler, Indiana Republican and chairman of the immigration subcommittee, said those problems would only become worse with a guest-worker program and that would be unfair to those who have been waiting legally for years.

“How could this added burden not detrimentally affect aliens waiting to immigrate lawfully?” he said.

Mr. Chertoff said it would take “some considerable number of months” to get a program up and running but there is no alternative to a guest-worker program.

He said the cost of deporting just 10 percent of illegal aliens now in the country would be gigantic and that the cost for housing them during legal appeals could be $10 billion a year.

Mr. Chertoff yesterday acknowledged that operational control of the border is still two years away, though he said that’s two years earlier than his prediction just months ago as a result of the recent infusion of money and manpower.

He also said criminal cases against employers who hire illegal aliens have been stepped up.

At one point, Mr. Chertoff said they have done such a good job on the border that the cost of smuggling has gone up, and so has violence.

But subcommittee Chairman Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican, told Mr. Chertoff his own department had recently provided figures showing the average price people pay to be smuggled has dropped from $1,936 in 2004 to $1,798 in 2005 to $1,600 as of April.

Mr. Chertoff replied that he hadn’t seen those figures and would want to know how his department calculated them.

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