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By Jerry Seper
March 24, 2006

Migrants sneaking illegally into the United States from countries other than Mexico are renting families -- mostly small children -- to ensure that if they are apprehended, they won't be deported, but released back into the United States, a top immigration official said yesterday.

The "rent-a-family" scheme, said John P. Torres, director of the Office of Detention and Removal at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is being used by alien smugglers along the U.S.-Mexico border -- mainly in Texas -- to circumvent a new expedited-removal program for non-Mexican aliens, whose arrest under existing deportation policies had become known as "catch-and-release."

"They are passing themselves off as a family, paying to have children smuggled with them across the border, because the smugglers know we're not going to break up a family for the deportation process," Mr. Torres said. "They're renting babies -- the younger the better -- including those not yet of speaking age.

"They get processed as a family and released together, under the law, pending an immigration hearing," Mr. Torres said.

He said the cost to the migrants for renting a family is in the "thousands of dollars" -- in addition to the $1,500 to $2,000 they are paying per person to be taken across the border.

Mr. Torres said the children are being rented out by families along the border, and authorities are not sure how they are being returned after crossing into the United States. But, he said, some of the children are being rented more than once.

He said immigration authorities also are concerned that as the summer months approach and the temperatures in the border areas climb, the children could be in increased jeopardy.

Because of a lack of detention space, most of the other-than-Mexico migrants, known as OTMs, caught illegally entering the United States are given notices to appear at immigration status hearings and allowed to stay in the country legally until their hearing.

OTMs must be flown back to their home countries, a process that often takes months.

But only about 12 percent of OTMs who receive the notices show up, with U.S. Border Patrol sectors in Texas reporting no-show rates as high as 98 percent. The expedited-removal program, as mandated by Congress, is available for non-Mexican migrants apprehended in this country within 14 days of entry and within 100 miles of the border, providing they have no criminal record.

Mr. Torres described the expedited-removal program as a legal process that allows ICE to remove illegal aliens without a formal hearing before an immigration judge if they have no credible claim to asylum or any other relief from deportation. He said non-Mexican migrants who are detained are placed into streamlined proceedings, allowing the government to deport them in an average of 32 days, nearly three times faster than the previous deportation process.

Illegal aliens from Mexico are usually returned across the border within hours if they have no criminal record, and while U.S. immigration authorities -- facing a flood of illegal aliens -- have not been hesitant to subject individual OTMs to the expedited-removal process, they have been reluctant to break up non-Mexican migrant families because of a lack of detention space to house them as a unit.

"This rent-a-family scheme is simply an effort to defeat the expedited-removal program because it is working," Mr. Torres said.

The numbers of OTMs illegally crossing into the United States has increased steadily in the past several years. More than 160,000 were apprehended last year, Mr. Torres said, compared with 75,000 in 2004. He noted that ICE has about 20,000 detention beds to house the aliens, each costing the government an average of about $95 a day to maintain.