Ending the “catch-and-release” policy for non-Mexican illegal aliens will take at least a year, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has estimated.
But Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, said he has heard estimates from Mr. Chertoff’s department that it will take as long as three years to end the policy, stressing why better enforcement must come before Congress acts on President Bush’s call for a guest-worker program.
Mr. Bush has spent the past two days in Arizona and Texas pushing for an end to the policy in which non-Mexican aliens are processed and then released into society on the usually false hope they will return voluntarily to be deported.
Mr. Chertoff, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, said it would take a year to end the program as the department boosts the number of detention beds to hold illegal aliens and tries to trim the time each illegal occupies a bed.
“This is an area where we can have an impact in one year in keeping away people coming from outside Mexico,” he said in his Oct. 18 remarks.
Illegal aliens from Mexico regularly are returned to the border but OTMs, or “other than Mexican” aliens, have to be sent back to their home countries. That act requires going through a legal process in the United States and getting clearance from those governments, which can take weeks or months.
Only 25 percent of the 160,000 OTMs caught last year were deported, while the rest were released. The odds were so favorable that aliens from Brazil would seek border authorities and turn themselves in, knowing they were likely to be released immediately.
Dean Boyd, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said by expanding a program called “expedited removal” in September they already are moving aliens through the system faster, meaning the aliens occupy beds for a shorter period of time. He said the time has been cut from an average stay of 90 days to 32 days.
“Our goal ultimately is to further reduce the detention before they’re removed to 15 days,” he said.
He said recent spending bills also have expanded bed space from about 18,500 in fiscal 2005 to more than 20,000 now.
Several bills in Congress would help bolster a catch-and-return policy, including a bill from Sens. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, and Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, and a measure the House Homeland Security Committee passed two weeks ago.
Mr. Smith also said Mr. Bush’s view of a temporary program that sends workers home after six years simply isn’t workable.
“When you have people living here for six years who have brought their family, who have put down roots, it makes no sense to think they’re going home,” Mr. Smith said.
Those who want a crackdown on illegal aliens praise Mr. Bush for focusing on the border, but say his comments the past two days all but ignore interior enforcement.
From the other side of the debate, Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who wants a guest-worker plan and a broad legalization program, said she was encouraged that Mr. Bush still insists on a worker program even in the face of congressional opposition.
“What he did was to say ‘Let’s get serious about this now,’” she said. “In a way, the subtext is almost more important than the text. He didn’t add any new details, but he said ‘I want this to happen now.’”