WASHINGTON – Nearly all non-Mexican illegal immigrants caught sneaking into the United States are being held until they can be returned to their home countries, the Bush administration said Wednesday.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said this marks the end of the “catch-and-release” practice that for years helped many illegal immigrants stay in the United States unhindered.
“There is a real deterrent effect to this policy,” Chertoff told reporters in Washington, pointing to a 20,000 drop in the number of illegal immigrants caught crossing the southwest border this summer compared with last summer.
“Although we’re not ready to declare victory, we’ve got a lot more work to do, it is encouraging and it is something that ought to inspire us to continue to push forward,” Chertoff said.
The new policy generally does not apply to Mexicans, who are almost immediately returned to Mexico after being stopped by Border Patrol agents, said John Torres, detention and removal director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an arm of Homeland Security.
Most of the more than 1 million illegal immigrants who sneak over the southwest border annually are Mexicans, he said.
Of 2,010 non-Mexican immigrants stopped in the first two weeks of August, only 26 have been released, a 99 percent detention rate, Homeland Security data show.
Moreover, the immigrants are detained for an average of 21 days, down from 90 days a year ago, before they are taken home, Torres said.
Immigrant rights advocates have questioned whether the border crackdown actually deters people from sneaking into the U.S., noting that some illegal immigrants may just be shifting entry points to cross at more remote and dangerous areas.
But Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar said far fewer immigrants have been seen at traditional staging points in Mexico, where thousands of people often meet up before trying to cross the border.
“We’re not seeing that any more,” Aguilar said.
Homeland Security also is putting more technology in remote parts of the 2,000-mile border to detect immigrants trying avoid U.S. agents, Chertoff said. “As it gets harder, fewer people will try to come,” he said.
In May, President Bush called for deploying 6,000 National Guard troops to the southwest border. The move was widely seen as an election-year nod to conservatives who have long complained about that porous border and the growing number of illegal immigrants in the country.
About 11 million illegal immigrants were living in the U.S. at the start of this year, compared with an estimated 8.5 million living in the country in January 2000, Homeland Security data show.