US to end 'catch and release' at Mexican border
Wed Nov 23, 2005 8:05 AM ET

By Bernd Debusmann

LAREDO, Texas (Reuters) - The United States is closing a legal loophole which has allowed tens of thousands of illegal immigrants to slip into the country and join the estimated 11 million undocumented foreigners already here.

Under long-standing procedure along the U.S. border with Mexico, illegal crossers of nationalities other than Mexican -- dubbed OTMs by the Border Patrol -- have been entitled to a hearing before an immigration judge before they could be deported.

Because of a severe shortage of space to hold them until the hearing, they were released after being fingerprinted and given a "notice to appear," a document stating they had agreed to show up at court at a certain date.

The notice serves as a travel document allowing its holder past Border Patrol checkpoints on the roads leading from the border to the interior. Most OTMs do not show up for their hearing and meld into the population.

Known as "catch and release", the practice has become part of an increasingly acrimonious debate over immigration policy and border security, an issue likely to loom large in Congress, next year's mid-term elections and the 2008 presidential poll.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said last month his department's aim was to "return every single entrant -- no exceptions" but gave no deadline. Mexicans are usually returned immediately -- and most of them try again, some within hours.

Along the border, agents say ending the practice will take time and depends on how quickly the government can build additional detention space told hold OTMs before they are sent to their home countries.

OTMs were a relatively minor problem until 2003, when word of the loophole spread and triggered a growing flood -- including thousands of Brazilians inspired by a popular soap opera, "America," whose sultry star plays an illegal immigrant who swam the Rio Grande and made good in the United States.


According to Border Patrol statistics, apprehensions of OTMs tripled from fiscal 2003 to fiscal 2005, which ended in October, from 49,545 to 165,175. Brazilians made up the second-biggest group this year, after Hondurans and before people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

The Brazilian rush northwards highlighted the complex nature of international migration patterns. Apart from the lure of emulating soap opera stars, Brazilians were taking advantage of easy travel from Brazil to Mexico, which abolished visas for Brazilians in 2000 to promote tourism and business.

After flying into Mexican airports, the Brazilians would head north to cross over the river or the deserts further west.

Mexico re-introduced visas last month.

"Catch and release" is gradually being replaced by "Expedited Removal," a process which cuts out the hearing before an immigration judge and allows border patrol agents to decide whether an illegal crosser should be deported.

In one of the many quirks of the complicated U.S. immigration rules, someone who crosses illegally, manages to get 100 miles beyond the border and stay undetected for more than 14 days cannot be subjected to Expedited Removal and is entitled to make a case for staying on to a judge.

(In another immigration law oddity, Cubans who sail across the Straits of Florida and make it to land are entitled to stay while those caught at sea can be returned.)

First introduced in the Laredo sector of the southwestern border, Expedited Removal is now being expanded to the entire 1,951-mile international line.

Administration officials stress that faster deportations and tighter border controls alone are no solution to illegal immigration. "We are going to need more than just brute enforcement," Chertoff told the Senate Judiciary Committee recently.

President George W. Bush has been pushing a guest worker plan that would allow foreigners working in the U.S. illegally to get three-year visas, renewable once. After that, they would have to return to their home countries and apply for a new permit.

The Bush plan appeals to part of the president's support base -- employers who want cheap labor -- but falls short of the demands of conservatives who say that even with the additional measures now being implemented, border security is not nearly tight enough.