- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Immigration authorities released more than 400,000 illegal migrants into the U.S. under catch-and-release border policies in 2019. This year, that has been cut to fewer than 15,000 — and most of those were humanitarian cases, such as those involving a need for urgent medical care.

It all could come roaring back next year, though, the Department of Homeland Security said this week, warning of a looming “invasion” of illegal immigrants should the next administration roll back President Trump’s accomplishments.

While other departments are defending Mr. Trump, Homeland Security leaders are going further. They are arguing aggressively that the kinds of policies laid out by Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden would unleash a wave of illegal immigration unlike anything seen before.

“We’re not just going to see another immigration crisis; we’re going to see an invasion. And I fully believe that,” said Mark Morgan, acting head of Customs and Border Protection.

He didn’t mention Mr. Biden by name but left no doubt whom he was talking about, referring to ideas such as extending health care coverage to illegal immigrants, rolling back Trump policies on asylum-seekers and halting border wall construction. All of those are parts of plans discussed by Mr. Biden’s campaign.

Homeland Security officials also weighed in Tuesday to contradict Mr. Biden’s claim during last week’s final presidential debate that illegal immigrant families show up for their deportation hearings. Mr. Trump countered that the number was less than 1%.

In fact, Homeland Security officials said, only about a third of families from last year’s border surge showed up for their proceedings, according to a 10-city pilot program.

When the entire illegal immigrant population, not just families, is counted, the “in absentia” rate was 53% through the early part of 2020. That worked out to more than 85,000 immigrants who missed their hearings and were ordered removed in absentia.

That was four times the rate during the last year of the George W. Bush administration, said Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy homeland security secretary.

“What the numbers show is they do not abide by the rulings of that process,” he said.

The Washington Times reached out to the Biden campaign for a response.

The fact that migrants don’t show up for hearings and, even when they do and are ordered deported, defy those orders and burrow into the shadows underscores the need to block them at the border, Mr. Cuccinelli and Mr. Morgan told reporters on Tuesday.

They said that is where ending catch-and-release comes into play.

The surge of migrant families in late 2018 and 2019 overwhelmed immigration authorities who, thanks to court orders, lack of detention space and the slow pace of deportation hearings, had to release most of them into communities on the hope that they return.

Mr. Morgan said between CBP and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement they released more than 400,000 people in fiscal year 2019.

In fiscal year 2020, which ended last month, fewer than 15,000 were caught and released — a drop of more than 96%.

Homeland Security officials pointed to a series of steps they have taken, they said at Mr. Trump’s direction, that account for the improvement.

Among those are better cooperation with Mexico to stop people before they reach the U.S., better relations with Central American nations to return illegal crossers, tighter asylum rules to block bogus claims and the Migrant Protection Protocols — also known as “Remain in Mexico” — which allows the government to push illegal arrivals back across the border to await their court hearings.

That denies them the chance to roam freely in the U.S. and disappear into the shadows with the estimated 11 million other illegal immigrants.

Immigrant rights groups say the cost in dollars is high but the human cost of stiffer enforcement is even higher.

They say the asylum crackdown is denying needy people a chance to escape persecution and violence, and they point to the administration’s zero-tolerance policy from 2018, which led to thousands of children separated from parents as the adults were prosecuted for jumping the border.

The government revealed last week that more than 500 children remain separated.

“This is appalling,” top House Democrats wrote in a letter to Health and Human Services Department officials, who are supposed to be overseeing the children’s care.

Mr. Biden, in the debate, said parents had children “ripped from their arms.”

“It’s criminal,” he said.

He has vowed to roll back the asylum changes and the Migrant Protection Protocols. During the debate, he said the policy left migrants “sitting in squalor on the other side of the river” in Mexico.

The Democratic candidate has suggested cutting the number of illegal immigrants detained, limiting how and where ICE can enforce laws against those in the country’s interior illegally, and halting construction of the border wall.

A unity platform agreed to by Mr. Biden’s team and Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, his chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, also calls for extending some Obamacare health care coverage to illegal immigrants.

Mr. Morgan said the next president could achieve much of the Trump rollback “with the stroke of a pen.”

“If the wall is no longer allowed to continue to be built, if MPP goes away, what you’re going to see is a resurgence of catch-and-release,” the acting commissioner said. “You’re not going to see a crisis; you’re going to see an invasion.”

Mr. Biden’s campaign promises may already be fueling that next wave.

Mr. Morgan said agents at the border who interview illegal crossers have heard them say they are coming to the U.S. for those benefits, and smugglers are telling them to get ready for a change in policy.

“The human smuggling organizations are telling them, ‘Make your way. America’s opening back up. You’re going to get free health care,’” Mr. Morgan told reporters.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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