THE Department of Homeland Security is releasing drug smugglers and human traffickers, and perhaps even suspected terrorists and violent felons, as a matter of policy — because it doesn't have the resources to keep them in custody.The failure to support the rule of law when it comes to immigration laws has just made this problem bigger. Vigerous enforcment would discourage illegal entry.
In a classified memo issued last fall, the DHS laid out "priorities" for handling illegal aliens who've been apprehended within the United States.
In a bullet-point list, the October 2004 memo — obtained exclusively by this columnist — separates all captured illegals into four categories: "Mandatory," "High Priority," "Medium Priority," and "Lower Priority."
Only the worst violent felons (think rapists and murderers), individuals known to be terrorists, and those who have been previously deported are deemed "mandatory" holds. Everyone else can be released if no space is available. Among illegals not deemed "mandatory" holds:
* "Aliens who are subject to an ongoing national security investigation."
* Aliens whom we aren't sure are terrorists but who still "raise a national security concern" based on "specific information or intelligence specific to the individual" — in other words, suspected terrorists.
* Aliens who "exhibit specific, articulable intelligence-based risk factors for terrorism or national security concern."
Border Patrol agents find it particularly disconcerting to release human traffickers, whom they view as as both murderers and grave security threats — people with no scruples who will take anyone across the border, for a price.
When they are released according to the procedures in the memo, the illegal aliens are given notices to appear for a hearing. Of course, most don't. "The number is actually around 3 percent," notes Center for Immigration Study analyst Jessica Vaughan.
DHS, in fact, has little control over the overall number of people who can be physically held pending removal or deportation hearings — because it has very few places to hold them: Only 18,400 beds for the entire country (down from 23,000 just last year).
Congress thought it had solved this problem. Last year's intelligence bill called for 40,000 new beds — 8,000 per year from 2006 through 2010. Lawmakers also authorized adding 800 agents for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the DHS agency with the sole authority for detaining illegals.
When President Bush put forward his budget this year, however, both items got the shaft. Bush's spending blueprint calls for only 1,920 new beds and just 143 additional ICE agents — a fifth of what Congress dictated.
ICE's budget woes are not unknown. Last summer, Government Executive ran a story about how the agency's financial shortfalls were leading to the release of criminal illegal aliens. The article quoted an ICE official who wrote in an internal agency e-mail, "Here it is in a nutshell . . . We are BROKE."
"Catch and release" (as Border Patrol agents call it) has become commonplace. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the homeland security Appropriations subcommittee, says, "There [are] roughly 465,000 absconders . . . [and] 45,000 of those are criminals."