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Immigration policy called lax
Enforcement problems may help terrorists, senator tells panel
08:49 PM CST on Monday, March 14, 2005
By MICHELLE MITTELSTADT / The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON – Terrorists may be able to exploit the "soft underbelly" of a U.S. immigration system that releases some illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico into the United States pending a future court hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein complained Monday.

A series of weaknesses in immigration enforcement – ranging from the inability to track the departure of foreign visitors to the lack of counterterrorism training for inspectors – was showcased at a joint hearing of two Senate Judiciary subcommittees.

"I understand that our immigration policy can be reformed to better serve our national security and our national economy," said immigration subcommittee Chairman John Cornyn, R-Texas. "At the same time, I understand that unless we can ensure enforcement of the law, it is futile to discuss reform."

Ms. Feinstein, D-Calif., expressed alarm at the rising arrests of illegal immigrants from countries such as Syria, Iran and Iraq. Apprehension of non-Mexican immigrants entering illegally surged from 30,147 in fiscal 2003 to 44,617 last year – a 48 percent increase.

The senator derided the "catch and release" policy that permits many to be released into the United States – with large numbers failing to appear for their immigration hearings.

"It seems to me if I were a terrorist and I wanted to come into the United States, this is the way I'd do it," she said.

While illegal immigrants from Mexico are routinely dropped south of the border, the issue of non-Mexicans is more complex. Many are released on their own recognizance or on bail because of lack of detention space.

Intelligence suggests that al-Qaeda has considered infiltrating operatives into the United States through Mexico, so there is growing concern in Congress about non-Mexican illegal immigrants.

Congress last year authorized adding 8,000 detention spaces a year for five years – a total of 40,000. But the Bush administration reduced that number to less than a fourth – 1,920 new jail beds next year.

The same holds true for Border Patrol agents. Congress last year authorized an increase of 2,000 Border Patrol agents in each of the next five years. The administration wants to reduce that number to 210 extra agents next year.

Mr. Cornyn, who recently toured the border near Laredo, said Border Patrol agents told him "they feel outmanned and underequipped."

"I am concerned that our expansive and porous border leaves our country vulnerable still today," he said.

Thomas Walters, a former Border Patrol agent who is assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, disagreed.

"My instincts tell me that we've never paid more attention to our borders than we are paying to our borders right now," he testified. "If we are not quite there yet, we are on the way."

Still, problems remain.

Elaine Dezenski, another Homeland Security official testifying Monday, acknowledged that the government probably will fail again to meet its deadline for the use of passports with biometric identifiers from the 27 visa-waiver countries.

While only two of the 27 countries will meet the October deadline, the Homeland Security Department is struggling with the scanners necessary to read the biometric passports and faces other operational challenges, she said.