Catch, release ending; Senate panel approves more BP agents, new fences
Laredo Morning Times

WASHINGTON - The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to force the Homeland Security Department to end its "catch-and-release" practice for non-Mexican foreigners captured near the U.S. southern border - a policy that has allowed thousands of illegal immigrants to disappear once in the country.

Instead of releasing the foreigners and ordering them to appear in court later, as has been the practice, the department would have to detain the illegal immigrants until they could be returned to their home countries. The Judiciary Committee added the detain-and-deport mandate to a sweeping bill to rewrite the nation's immigration laws. Supporters said it would close a loophole that allows illegal immigrants to ignore their court appearances and slip into the country undetected. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who sponsored the proposal, said the government's current practice makes "a mockery" of the nation's laws against illegal immigration.

The new requirement is part of a larger immigration bill that the full Senate is expected to consider later this year after it has been drafted by the Judiciary Committee. The panel has put off votes on some contentious issues, including a proposal to create a new temporary work visa for foreigners to fill down-paying, low skill jobs for up to six years.

The committee has voted to:

Boost the number of border patrol agents by at least 12,000 in the next two years.

Install new fencing along some parts of Arizona's border with Mexico, focusing on urban areas. But the panel did not vote on a more controversial plan, authored by Sessions, to install a double-layer security fence along roughly 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. Similar language is part of an immigration bill the House passed in December. Sessions plans to offer the proposal as an amendment during Senate floor debate on the legislation.

- Give the Homeland Security secretary the power to deny visas to anyone from a country that is slow to accept citizens that have been caught illegally in the United States. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who sponsored this initiative, said the government could deny travel or work visas to foreign dignitaries as a way of pressuring countries to more quickly take back their citizens.

The roughly 900,000 Mexicans caught entering the United States illegally each year are usually swiftly returned home. But it takes more time to deport other foreign nationals as the U.S. government negotiates with home countries for their return.

In the meantime, the Homeland Security Department can detain the so-called "other than Mexicans," or OTMs. But because of limited detention facilities, the government has generally released OTMs on their own recognizance, asking them to appear in court later. Most never do.

In fiscal 2005, border patrol agents initially caught more than 160,000 OTMs, but only 30,000 were forced out of the United States.

"This no-show rate is the root cause of the (thousands of) absconders we have in the United States each year," Sessions said.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has pledged to end the catch-and-release policy by October and his department is already working to phase it out. Sessions' amendment would force that change on the Homeland Security Department.

To comply with the mandate, the government would have to build new detention facilities to house OTMs captured near the border. Right now, there are roughly 20,800 beds available. President Bush has asked Congress to approve spending for 6,700 more.

Cornyn, who has been critical of the catch-and-release policy in the past, said he worried that the government still would not have enough space to detain OTMs.

"We have a lot of catching up to do," Cornyn said. "We're going to have to do a massive investment" in infrastructure along the border.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., complained that the new requirement would be a "pretense" unless the federal government gets tough and starts enforcing immigration laws.

"The problem is we have great aspirations, and nothing gets enforced," Feinstein said.

The House passed its own immigration legislation in December, but unlike the Senate bill, the House measure takes a get-tough approach to illegal immigration and creates no new guest-worker program for foreigners.

Bush has not endorsed the Senate bill, but he has repeatedly called for some kind of temporary visa program "to match willing foreign workers with willing employers when no Americans can be found to fill the job."