Curbing 'voluntary return'

By Robert W. Gilbert
Special to the Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 01.25.2009

The U.S. Border Patrol hopes to eliminate the use of "voluntary return" for illegal aliens in the Tucson Sector, replacing it with prosecution and removal initiatives that will have an important and lasting impact.

Voluntary return, often dubbed "catch and release," is an administrative action that began about three decades ago and involves arresting Mexican illegal aliens who do not have criminal backgrounds. They are processed and dropped off at the border, often within hours.

The only penalty is a quick non-judicial return to Mexico.
In contrast, formal removals and deportations carry penalties ranging from bans on legal re-entry to felony prosecution for subsequent illegal re-entries.

National security mission

In addition to our traditional role in border enforcement, the U.S. Border Patrol is charged with preventing the entry of terrorists and terrorist weapons into the United States. Our agency works to stem the flow of drugs, weapons, criminal aliens and violence into our country.

Approximately 10 percent of all illegal aliens arrested have criminal records for felony offenses involving drugs, violent crimes and sex offenses.

When entries are at their lowest, agents are better able to focus on the true threats to national security.

While working to control our borders, we also remain dedicated to ensuring that the rights of all arrested aliens are respected. Every effort is made to protect family unity during detention and repatriation. Medical, health and safety needs are immediately addressed. Legal and consular rights are respected and preserved throughout the custody process.

An essential point that often seems diluted is that entering the United States illegally is a crime. Those who commit this crime are susceptible to the consequences set forth under federal laws. It is these laws that the employees of the Tucson Sector work to enforce every day.

Border security is a complex issue and as such requires an unwavering commitment to strategies that will have the largest effect. Smuggling is no longer a mom-and-pop operation, it has become organized crime.
The largest impact can only be made by breaking the smuggling cycle, by putting up barriers and checkpoints that make the business of smuggling humans and narcotics unprofitable and unattractive.

Only as the smuggling cycle is disrupted do we see consistent decreases in arrests and increases in drug seizures. Efforts to increase prosecution rates have had a dramatic effect on arrest totals and rates of recidivism (those who are arrested, repatriated, re-enter and then are arrested again).

These initiatives include:

• The Arizona Denial Prosecution Initiative assures that each defendant prosecuted faces a maximum sentence of up 180 days in jail, a formal removal and a bar on legal re-entry for five years. During fiscal 2008, more than 13,000 illegal aliens were successfully prosecuted in the first year of this program.

Furthermore, illegal aliens prosecuted under the initiative had a recidivism rate of only 21 percent, compared with historical rates as high as 70 percent.

• The Alien Transfer Exit Program directly breaks the smuggling cycle by repatriating aliens into regions further east or west of their entry location. This prevents them from immediately reorganizing with smugglers for re-entry. During 2008, more than 10,000 illegal aliens were removed through the Alien Transfer Exit Program, which was also a new program. Those illegal aliens had a recidivism rate of 28 percent.

• The Mexican Interior Repatriation Program returns illegal aliens who are citizens of Mexico back to their cities of origin. This program not only acts as a deterrent to illegal re-entry, but also mitigates the health and safety risks of crossing in the deserts of the Tucson Sector for women, children and families.

Combined with our humanitarian efforts, deaths declined by 19 percent during 2008. More than 18,000 aliens were repatriated in 2008. Recidivist rates for those involved in this program were only 10 percent.

• The Quick Court is an initiative that works to ease the dockets of the traditional immigration judge. The process expedites the formal removal proceedings of illegal aliens arrested within the Tucson Sector, providing additional avenues to maintain effective levels of prosecution independent of cases handled by the United States Attorney's Office. More than 800 cases were prosecuted under this initiative within the sector during 2008.

• The Operation Against Smugglers Initiative on Safety and Security allows the Tucson Sector to work closely with Mexican officials to secure the prosecution in Mexico of guides and smugglers arrested in the United States.

While these cases are being adjudicated, the suspects are jailed in Mexico, at no expense to U.S. taxpayers. During 2008, more than 374 principal subjects were prosecuted through the program, up from 20 in recent years.

Measuring success

There are many measurable indicators of our achievements. More than 300,000 illegal aliens were arrested within the Tucson Sector during 2008. Approximately 71,000 were not repatriated via voluntary return within the Tucson Sector. This equates to about 23 percent of all arrests.

In 2007, there were about 378,000 illegal-alien arrests and 45,000, or about 11 percent, were not repatriated through voluntary return. This left 89 percent to potentially attempt re-entry.

Our progress within one calendar year has made a huge statement to smugglers and their customers. Since the implementation of our prosecution initiatives, nearly 85 percent of all illegal aliens arrested within our "priority areas" have been prosecuted, removed and/or repatriated via one of the initiatives.

This is a major step forward in stopping the revolving door of voluntary return. These cases have resulted in more than 270,000 days of jail time for those who have broken immigration laws.

The gains made within the Tucson Sector are the result of focused efforts, adjustments to operations and realignment of resources. I believe that maintaining transparency is vital for healthy operations and strong community relationships. I hope my efforts to enlighten the public will foster a well-rounded perception of our enforcement initiatives and intentions to improve the quality of life in communities across Arizona.

Contact Chief Robert W. Gilbert at chieftucsonsector@cbp.dhs.gov

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