Thursday, April 14, 2005

One million people facing immigration proceedings have been released into the general population, the government’s chief of detention and removal told the Senate yesterday , prompting some Republicans to say the Bush administration is “not serious” about the problem.

“We have a million individuals who are in some phase of immigration proceedings released,” said Victor X. Cerda, the acting director of detention and removal operations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

He said of those people, 465,000 are fugitive aliens who have been ordered deported. About 80,000 of those are criminal aliens who have committed an offense in addition to immigration violations, but he couldn’t provide an exact number.

His comments came as an immigration debate in the Senate blocked most progress on the emergency war-spending bill. Pending amendments include cracking down on illegal immigrants’ use of driver’s licenses, increasing visas for seasonal nonimmigrant workers and legalizing up to 1 million illegal aliens who work in agriculture and their families.

Yesterday’s hearing, before two subcommittees of the Judiciary Committee, is supposed to lay the groundwork for a comprehensive immigration bill, said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and chairman of the immigration subcommittee, which held the hearing along with Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, chairman of the terrorism subcommittee.

“No serious discussion of comprehensive immigration reform is possible without a review of our nation’s ability to effectively secure its borders and enforce its immigration laws,” Mr. Cornyn said.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, and Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, demanded to know why Mr. Cerda was not doing more to have illegal aliens removed.

Mr. Sessions said ICE is far behind in entering the names of the 465,000 alien fugitives into law-enforcement databases, which means that if those people are picked up in another arrest, they would not be turned over to immigration authorities.

Jonathan Cohn, a deputy assistant attorney general, told the panel that court decisions over the years will result in the government having to release dangerous criminal aliens as well.

“The aliens that are being released include murderers, rapists and child molesters,” Mr. Cohn said.

Members of the subcommittees also ended up taking sides on whether the Minutemen patrolling the Arizona border are “vigilantes,” as President Bush called them.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said he agreed with Mr. Bush’s characterization, and told Mr. Cerda to let him know what the Department of Homeland Security’s policy was on dealing with vigilantes.

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