Slipping through a gap in border enforcement

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  1. -Cp

    -Cp Senior Member

    Sep 23, 2004
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    Slipping through a gap in border enforcement
    Illegal immigration by non-Mexicans is surging, and for many getting caught only helps
    By Juan Castillo


    Saturday, July 16, 2005

    MCALLEN — Illegal immigrants from Brazil, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and other nations routinely descend on the bus station just steps from the New World discount store in this bustling, sweltering city 10 miles from a U.S.-Mexico bridge.

    They openly gather in groups, make phone calls and buy bus tickets to cities across the United States. They have little fear of being arrested — most already have been. Happily.

    Many, in fact, illegally crossed the border hoping to get caught right away and slip through a crack in the nation's immigration system known as "catch and release.'

    While Mexicans can be easily bused back to their country, arranging to deport non-Mexican immigrants can take months. There are few jails to hold them while arrangements are made. So non-Mexican immigrants deemed not to be a safety or security risk are given a summons for a distant court date at the nearby Harlingen immigration court and set free.

    Between the time they are released and the date they are supposed to appear in court — which more than 90 percent of them will not do — they can legally move about the country and ultimately meld into an illegal immigrant population now estimated at 11 million.

    Central and South Americans — Brazilians in particular — represent a new and rapidly multiplying wave of illegal immigration from countries other than Mexico, a trend that is frustrating the Border Patrol and federal lawmakers.

    Critics charge that the relative ease with which non-Mexicans can enter the United States through Mexico, which doesn't require visas for Brazilians, reveals a weakness in the post-2001 era of homeland security.

    "It simply means that an avenue by which a worker could come into the country illegally is available also to a terrorist who would want to come into our country and do us harm," U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said last month in Austin.

    "I think it's unconscionable that at a time when (President Bush) talks about homeland security, that he allows a catch and release policy for non-Mexicans," said U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, a former Border Patrol chief in McAllen and El Paso.

    "If an attack like (the London bombings) occurs here and it's traced back to one of these people who were released in South Texas, I think it could be grounds for impeachment."

    A White House spokeswoman referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security.

    "No one is released from Homeland Security custody that is considered to present any risk whatsoever to public safety or national security," said Russ Knocke with the department.

    "This administration has dramatically increased funding and resources in border security and enforcement to maximize security and shut down vulnerabilities."

    Zeroing in on the Rio Grande Valley

    Nowhere has the growth of illegal immigration by non-Mexicans been more spectacular than in the Rio Grande Valley.

    Numerous international bridges, miles of open border and northbound highways leading to Houston, Austin and beyond make the lower Valley around McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville a ready funnel for the waves of Central and South American arrivals.

    The 19-county Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol sector now accounts for almost half of the nation's non-Mexican apprehensions so far this year and about 74 percent of Brazilian apprehensions.

    Nationally, with about four months still left in this fiscal year, Border Patrol agents have caught about 115,000 non-Mexicans — 153 percent more than during 2004, which itself was a record year. Of those, more than 26,000 were Brazilians, more than three times the number arrested last year.

    The rate of illegal immigration among non-Mexicans is a hot topic in this agricultural cradle, as is the manner in which it takes place.

    "We have instances where they are actually flagging down our agents and they are asking local residents to call the Border Patrol so they can get what they call their permiso," Spanish for permit or permission, Reyes said on the House floor in May. Agents are demoralized, he said.

    Border Patrol officials stress that they do their job arresting undocumented immigrants.

    Another office within the federal Department of Homeland Security, immigration detention and removal operations, ultimately decides when to give non-Mexicans a court date and release them.

    Federal officials are supposed to return undocumented immigrants to their home countries. But with 85 percent to 90 percent of the nation's detention beds already taken by immigrants considered mandatory holds, officials release immigrants who don't have criminal records or pose a security risk.

    "Obviously our priority is going to be to not release people who are a threat to the community," said Luisa Deason, a spokeswoman in Houston for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversees immigration detention and removal.

    Arrest warrants are issued for those who miss court dates, and the agency has a fugitive operations team working nationwide that "has become effective for us," Deason said.

    Non-Mexicans represent a fraction of the flow of illegal immigrants. Despite a massive border enforcement buildup and high-tech security deployment that began in the 1990s, the Border Patrol caught 1.1 million immigrants entering the country illegally last year.

    Brazilians share a common experience

    In a bus station crackling with the energy of hundreds of travelers, Vania Miranda, 24, and her friend, Jose Gomes, 42, chat in Portuguese, passing the time while waiting for a bus to Miami.

    The Brazilians are approachable and quick with a smile. Miranda says they each paid $7,000 to come to the United States via Mexico.

    Border Patrol agents caught them the day before. Miranda raises her hands to pantomime "surrender." Someone coached them to surrender, but she won't say who.

    Gomes hopes to work in construction or drive a cab, both of which he's done in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Miranda wants to use her experience as a hair stylist at a beauty salon.

    About a dozen Brazilians interviewed over two days at bus stations in McAllen and Harlingen gave similar accounts.

    All said they had been detained and then released with their "permisos." Most appeared to be in their late teens or early 20s and said they came to earn more money.

    "They all have a destination," said Ray Diaz, a McAllen Border Patrol spokesman. "They're not just coming here and wandering around aimlessly."

    Diaz said federal officials are investigating organized networks channeling Central Americans and South Americans into the United States.

    Trafficking rings are encouraging record Brazilian migration, the New York Times reported recently. Door-to-door transport to Boston, a popular destination for Brazilians, runs about $10,500, more than two years' income for the average Brazilian.

    Brazil's economy is doing well, and those who are leaving are mostly young and more educated, from the lower middle class and searching for opportunity.

    Mini-industry thrives on illegal immigrants

    The wave of non-Mexicans has spawned a mini-industry — taxis, motels, bus lines, phone card sales and money wire transfers — in the Valley.

    The 15 Brazilians who arrive at the bus station in downtown Harlingen to catch a bus to Dallas don't have to worry about cab fare. A van operated by the station ferries them for free from the motel where they spent the night after being arrested and released.

    In the lobby, the Brazilians begin a common routine. They buy tickets, then quickly head to a machine to buy phone cards. They congregate around pay phones lining the wall, taking turns making calls. Later, three of the young women approach the ticket counter to have money wired to them.

    In Harlingen, cab drivers say Brazilians have been a windfall for months, though fares slowed somewhat in recent weeks.

    "We were picking up anywhere from 30 to 40 every day with our company alone," said Bill Buchanan.

    He said some take taxis to three motels in McAllen, about 35 miles away. The motels pay the $66 fare.

    The Brazilians seem overjoyed that they have made it to America, said another cab driver.

    "I had a guy tell me, 'We're finally in the land of milk and honey,'" said Andy Davila.

    In some cases, the immigrants don't even need to call a cab. When Border Patrol agents release immigrants who might be vulnerable — such as unaccompanied women or families — they sometimes drive them to the station.

    Detention space remains a premium

    Cornyn, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on immigration and border security and has been conducting hearings on security and immigration issues, said catching and releasing non-Mexican immigrants is unacceptable because it doesn't work.

    About 85 percent of non-Mexican undocumented immigrants ordered deported remain illegally in the United States, federal officials told the Senate subcommittee in June.

    But Cornyn conceded it is unrealistic to ask officials to end the practice, given a lack of detention space, and he called for immigration officials to more quickly deport non-Mexican immigrants. Reyes points out, however, that there still must be some place to hold immigrants pending deportation, putting a premium on detention beds.

    He says non-Mexican immigrants would stop abusing U.S. immigration laws if more detention space was available.

    About 19,450 immigration detention beds are available nationwide, funded by Congress. For security reasons, immigration officials do not disclose the number of spaces available in a local area.

    Earlier this week, the Senate agreed to fund 2,240 new detention beds as part of the still-pending Homeland Security Budget, 220 more than requested in President Bush's 2006 budget.

    In the mid-1980s, when he headed the Border Patrol's McAllen sector, Reyes erected a temporary tent city to house thousands of immigrants for two years and placed an additional 200 agents directly on the border. Reyes was dealing with a surge of Central Americans fleeing civil wars.

    The strategy was controversial, but Reyes says it worked, in part because word quickly got back to other nations.

    "How controversial does anyone think it's going to be if we get attacked by terrorists and it gets traced back to these non-Mexicans," Reyes said. "And it damn sure is going to be expensive, but what's the alternative?"

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