Obama’s ‘catch and re­lease’ still click­ing

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Maria Sacchetti

WASH­ING­TON — The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has freed about 100,000 im­mi­grants caught at the U.S.Mex­ico bor­der in the 15 months since the pres­i­dent took of­fice, newly re­leased gov­ern­ment fig­ures show, de­spite re­peated prom­ises to end Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s “catch and re­lease” poli­cies.

Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials say they had to re­lease the mi­grants — more than 37,500 un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors and more than 61,000 fam­ily mem­bers — be­cause of judges’ rul­ings and fed­eral laws ban­ning pro­longed de­ten­tions for chil­dren, as well as a lack of de­ten­tion beds.

The num­ber of peo­ple caught cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally dropped to a 46-year low af­ter Trump ar­rived in the White House, prompt­ing then-Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary John Kelly, now the White House chief of staff, to de­clare that “catch and re­lease” had ended.

But af­ter ap­pre­hen­sions spiked in re­cent months, hit­ting 50,000 in March, Trump called for send­ing the Na­tional Guard to the Mex­i­can bor­der and — for the second time — vowed to stop re­leas­ing mi­grants while they await de­por­ta­tion pro­ceed­ings that can take years.

Fed­eral of­fi­cials say they are lim­ited by a 2008 an­ti­traf­fick­ing law that bans re­turn­ing un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors to coun­tries other than Mex­ico and Canada with­out a hear­ing, as well as a 1997 le­gal set­tle­ment that lim­its how long such chil­dren can be de­tained.

Of­fi­cials say about half the bor­der crossers come from Cen­tral Amer­ica. The gov­ern­ment of­ten re­leases par­ents and chil­dren to­gether be­cause de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties do not have space to keep them in cus­tody.

“The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has their hands tied,” said Katie Wald­man, a spokes­woman for the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity.

An­other fac­tor clog­ging the de­por­ta­tion process is that more mi­grants are seek­ing asy­lum than in the past. Un­der fed­eral law, the gov­ern­ment can­not de­port asy­lum seek­ers be­fore their cases are heard in the back­logged im­mi­gra­tion courts; many are freed on bond to live and work in the United States.

The num­bers show the near-im­pos­si­bil­ity of lock­ing up ev­ery per­son caught cross­ing il­le­gally, re­gard­less of White House pol­icy.

While ad­vo­cates say the vast ma­jor­ity of bor­der crossers are flee­ing gang vi­o­lence and drug traf­fick­ing, or seek­ing a bet­ter life in the United States, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion says free­ing them cre­ates a public safety risk.

“Those who break our im­mi­gra­tion laws have con­tin­ued to ex­ploit le­gal loop­holes to the detri­ment of our na­tional se­cu­rity and the safety of the Amer­i­can peo­ple,” said Home­land Se­cu­rity spokesman Tyler Houl­ton.

End­ing “catch and re­lease” was sup­posed to be Trump’s No. 2 im­mi­gra­tion pri­or­ity, af­ter walling off the bor­der with Mex­ico.

As a can­di­date, Trump ex­co­ri­ated Obama for fail­ing to stanch the flow of bor­der crossers and re­leas­ing thou­sands to await de­por­ta­tion pro­ceed­ings.

Af­ter tak­ing of­fice, Trump is­sued an ex­ec­u­tive or­der that said im­mi­grants should be de­tained un­til they could be sent out of the U.S. But that didn’t hap­pen.

When Trump re­cently sum­moned the Na­tional Guard, the White House said in a state­ment that the gov­ern­ment since fis­cal 2016 had ap­pre­hended 167,000 par­ents and chil­dren but later re­leased most of them, along with more than 107,000 un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors.

A break­down of those fig­ures re­quested by The Wash­ing­ton Post showed that the num­bers were slightly higher.

About 200,000 fam­i­lies and un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors were freed un­der Obama.

De­spite the ini­tial de­cline in cross­ings, more than 98,000 were re­leased un­der Trump, ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics from U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment, which re­leases adults and fam­i­lies, and the Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, which takes cus­tody of un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors and places them with a par­ent or guardian.

“I think the pres­i­dent has come to re­al­ize that we have a Con­sti­tu­tion and a Supreme Court that gov­erns how and when peo­ple can be de­tained,” said Gre­gory Chen, di­rec­tor of gov­ern­ment re­la­tions at the Amer­i­can Im­mi­gra­tion Lawyers As­so­ci­a­tion.

Guadalupe Cor­rea-Cabr­era, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment at Ge­orge Ma­son Uni­ver­sity who has stud­ied im­mi­grant smug­gling, said would-be mi­grants could be de­terred by the pres­ence of the Na­tional Guard.

But she said they will base their de­ci­sions on whether oth­ers con­tinue to win re­lease in the U.S.

“Ini­tially they will say, ‘Let’s wait,’ ” she said. “One is go­ing to try, and then 10 are go­ing to try. And if they’re not af­fected, then they’ll con­tinue.”

LOREN EL­LIOTT/GETTY-AFP

Un­der fed­eral law, the gov­ern­ment can­not de­port asy­lum seek­ers be­fore their cases are heard in the back­logged im­mi­gra­tion courts; many are freed on bond in the United States.

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