MCALLEN—When a Muslim woman with an altered South African passport was arrested at the McAllen airport last month after illegally crossing the Rio Grande, it highlighted fears that terrorists could find easy entry along the porous Southwest border.
And while federal prosecutors have not lodged any terrorism-related charges against Farida Goolam Mahomed Ahmed, 48, who remains jailed on immigration charges, law enforcement officials, as well as veteran Texas congressmen, say they are worried that Ahmed’s detention may be the exception to the rule.
In particular, they’re worried about what they derisively call the Department of Homeland Security’s “capture and release” program.
Brought on by a shortage of detention space, the program allows immigration officials to routinely release tens of thousands of illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico after extracting a promise from each toshow up at a future detention hearing.
Homeland Security officials acknowledge that more than 70 percent of those released disappear from law enforcement’s radar, resulting in a fugitive population of 400,000 nationwide.
Mexican migrants who are detained are deported and are usually bused to a port of entry where they cross the bridge to Mexico.
“I don’t think people realize that 15,000 of these people (non-Mexican migrants) have been dumped in communities in Texas in the last eight months,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, whose district includes nearly 800 miles of the Texas-Mexico border.
“You just never know, all we need is to have one or two get through that are up to some shenanigans.”
About half of non-Mexicans freed inside the U.S.
Nearly half of non-Mexicans arrested since October 2003 were released on the U.S. side of the border, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics released last week to the Chronicle.
So far this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2003, Homeland Security officials released from Border Patrol custody 21,979 of the 49,705 illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico, known to the Border Patrol as OTMs, said spokesman Mario Villarreal.
Villarreal said the vast majority of the non-Mexican migrants come from countries in Central and South America, but he refused to provide exact numbers for each country or the countries of origin.
The 21,979 non-Mexican immigrants were allowed to travel into the U.S. interior on their own after promising to appear later before an immigration judge.
On the U.S.-Canada border, 806 of the 3,688 OTMs were released, and 437 of the 4,240 immigrants apprehended on the high seas or the coasts were released, Villarreal said.
This year’s release of detained immigrants on the Southwest border is outstripping those released last fiscal year, when 8,753 of the 39,215 arrested were freed on their own recognizance, Villarreal said.
Russ Knocke, a Washington spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said current funding provides for 19,444 beds in detention centers, yet the population of undocumented migrants in custody is as high as 24,000 on some days, he said.
Knocke said migrants are released only after their identities are confirmed and the department is sure they don’t present a threat to the public or national security.
“The critical point is that we ensure there is bedspace for the child sex predators, the rapists, the drug dealers, the individual foreign nationals who present safety or security risks,” Knocke said.
Bonilla said the contention that Congress did not provide enough detention funding for the Homeland Security agency “is a sorry excuse.”
“They either ought to reprogram money within the department, or ask Congress foremergency funding,” Bonilla said.
Sheriff still upset over release last month
Del Rio Sheriff A. D’Wayne Jernigan is still upset over last month’s release of 17 Brazilians who were arrested in Abilene and Sweetwater, and then transferred to his jail.
Jernigan said the immigration officials were set to release the migrants without interviewing them.
Jernigan, who alerted the media and Bonilla, managed to delay the Brazilians’ release so that FBI agents could interview them after finding atranslator who spoke Portuguese.
“One of my concerns is, are we serious about terrorism, or about homeland security?” asks Jernigan, a former U.S. Customs criminal investigator.
“That’s my first thought, because we’re turning illegal aliens loose, the OTMs, by the thousands.”
And he believes the releases encourage more illegal immigration, because word of the policy has spread around the globe.
“Entering this country illegally is a crime, and we’re turning our heads and ignoring it,” the sheriff said. “It’s almost like telling them why waste your time (attempting to enter legally), do it the illegal way and get in a lot quicker.”
U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby, who oversees federal prosecutions in the Southern District of Texas from Houston, acknowledged that the lack of detention space is “an obvious law enforcement concern we’re trying to address.”
“The border area is so dynamic and so many people are committing different violations of immigration law along the five (South Texas) counties I’m responsible for, (that) we are continually running into areas where our resources don’t match our responsibilities,” Shelby said.
The prosecutor, while declining to provide specifics, said the “appropriate people” are focused on finding a solution. Meanwhile, he said no terrorists have slipped through.
“I don’t believe that they have,” Shelby said. “We have a process that has been in place to screen individuals of interest to law enforcement and other national agencies, and I’m confident that while the process needs to be strengthened, it has worked thus far.”
Suspicious foreigners are among detainees
Both Bonilla and U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, said federal law enforcement officials have told them that suspicious foreigners have been detained on the Texas border.
Law enforcement officials told Ortiz that among those released were several people who claimed to be from South or Central American countries, but couldn’t speak Spanish.
“The concern was they weren’t from where they said they were from, and they might be militants who could do us harm,” said Kathy Travis, Ortiz’s press secretary.
Sergio Ugazio, an immigration enforcement agent and president of the American Federation of Government Employees Union’s local 1944, testified before Congress in June about shortages of both detention space and deportation officers in South Texas.
“There are people who do come to our country for reasons other than economics, who come to do harm to our citizens,” said Ugazio, who works at a detention center near Port Isabel. “The Border Patrol agents are vigilant, and they do the best they can to keep their country safe. As far as I have heard, they have captured afew who have tried to slip through.”