Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Ending the catch-and-release policy for illegal aliens, as President Bush called for yesterday, will take years and far more than the current number of detention beds — something Mr. Bush himself underfunded in his most recent budget to Congress.

The president, speaking in Tucson, Ariz., followed the lead of congressional Republicans who have told him that border security must be part of any immigration bill.

Mr. Bush also took credit for increases in border and interior enforcement spending, pitched his plan for future foreign workers and endorsed changing laws to allow for quicker deportation of some illegal aliens.

“I think the White House’s view on this rhetorically at least has evolved,” said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who has introduced a comprehensive immigration bill that resembles Mr. Bush’s principles. “He brought all the components together, but the most important thing is they were built on the cornerstone of security, which is the message they’ve been receiving and we’ve all been receiving around the country.”

But critics of Mr. Bush’s immigration policy said he hasn’t put any muscle behind the initiatives he touted.

“Why now? We’ve had five years,” said Steven A. Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies. “Why has it taken so long to get to an issue like this? And when he addresses it, he talks about things he himself doesn’t support. He talks in vague generalities.”

Mr. Bush said his administration has boosted U.S. Border Patrol agents and detention beds, which puts them on the way to ending the “catch-and-release” policy under which non-Mexican illegal aliens are processed and released into U.S. society on the usually false hope that they will return to be deported.

But Mr. Bush’s budget submission in February called for just 210 more agents and fewer than 2,000 new detention beds — each amount less than a quarter of the totals that Congress and Mr. Bush agreed to just two months earlier.

Congress was able to find money in two spending bills for 1,500 agents this fiscal year, bringing the total authorized to about 12,500, but was only able to fund 2,000 more detention beds, bringing the number to 20,000.

“He can’t claim credit for increasing the number of Border Patrol agents,” said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council. “This administration resisted it at every bend in the road and then finally went along with it when Congress passed it.”

Critics said Mr. Bush also wrongly took credit for expanding the “Basic Pilot Program,” which lets companies voluntarily check a work applicant’s documents for validity. Congress passed a bill expanding the program from six states to nationwide, and although Mr. Bush signed the measure, lobbyists who tracked the issue said he put no legislative muscle behind it.

Mr. Cornyn, though, said Mr. Bush’s signing the final spending bills to boost agents and detention beds is the real measure of the president’s priorities.

“The president’s initial budget submission is just that — an initial presentation,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in Congress takes that initial presentation all that seriously in terms of priorities.”

Those seeking broad legalization of the 11 million illegal aliens in the United States said Mr. Bush must push for more than border security.

“Overhauling our broken immigration system is both complex and urgent, and it will not be solved by an enforcement-only approach,” said Eric M. Gutierrez, a spokesman for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Previous attempts at ‘get-tough’ enforcement measures have led to increases in human trafficking, false documentations, and tragically, thousands of preventable deaths in the desert.”

But Chris Bauder, president of the San Diego chapter of the Border Patrol council, said the key is to dry up illegals’ access to jobs, which will take better interior enforcement.

“When it came to the employer enforcement end of it, it was so broad and general it was the same we’ve heard,” he said, adding that Mr. Bush’s focus on the border ignores the real problem — and solution. “It sounds great, but again, all of it’s unnecessary if they just focused on the employers.”

Mr. Bush did tout workplace enforcement, saying he has increased investigators by 14 percent since 2001 and highlighting 2003’s Operation Rollback, which he called the “largest work site enforcement case in American history.”

But actual work site arrests of illegal aliens have fallen every year of his administration, from 953 in 2000 to 159 in 2004. Last year, the federal government issued just three notices of intent to fine companies for employing illegal aliens, down from 178 in 2000.

Randy Graf, a Republican congressional candidate in Arizona who attended yesterday’s speech, said Mr. Bush also didn’t answer key questions about what will happen to illegal aliens already in the United States.

“I still come away with that nagging suspicion it’s hard to try to implement this entire package at the same time,” he said. “I believe the people in this district, this state and across the country want to see the people step up and do the actual enforcement.”

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