Immigration Detention System Strained

Leslie Berestein, San Diego Union-Tribune, Nov. 30

One recent morning, a group of newly apprehended illegal border crossers stood at the door of the federal immigration detention center, waiting to be escorted in.

The Otay Mesa facility was already close to capacity. There were nearly 900 detainees bunking at an institution that holds 1,000. And autumn is the slow season, before illegal immigration picks up after the holidays.

As the Bush administration touts its plans to curb illegal immigration and implement a guest-worker program, such overcrowding, backlogs in immigration courts and delays in obtaining travel documents for deportees are a few of the daunting obstacles that could stymie efforts to make the detention and removal process more efficient.

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While most non-Mexicans who enter through California and Arizona are held, the numbers crossing through south Texas are impossible to accommodate. In the past fiscal year, out of the 79,859 non-Mexicans caught just in the Border Patrol’s McAllen, Texas, sector, 90 percent were released. Ninety-nine percent of those who were issued notices to appear by the court in nearby Harlingen, Texas, failed to do so.

Borderwide, 110,854 non-Mexicans were released last year for lack of bed space. Less than 30 percent of those apprehended were detained and sent home.

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Some people are there for the long haul.

One German-born detainee with a string of petty theft and drug convictions has been appealing his deportation since 1998. He has been at Otay Mesa for two years, after changes in the law made his custody mandatory. He is considered stateless: Germany doesn’t grant citizenship at birth, and his parents were born elsewhere. Such detainees are often released, but because his case is on appeal, he remains at the center.

“I’ve done more time in detention (here) than I’ve done in penal custody,” said Camal Marchabeyoglu, 45.

Attorneys complain of cases being resolved more slowly in San Diego than elsewhere.

“San Diego has a pretty large docket as a border city and only has seven (immigration) judges,” said immigration attorney Robin Carr. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

One of her clients has been in custody fighting his deportation to El Salvador since mid-2003. Another, a Colombian asylum seeker who is not in custody, has been in immigration proceedings since early 2004. Her trial is set for next October.

Detention officials complain about the time and cost—around $100,000 a year—it takes to shuttle detainees downtown for hearings. There are two courtrooms in Otay Mesa, but only one full-time judge, and the courtrooms are dark on Tuesdays.

Greg Gagne, a spokesman for the federal Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, said the assignment of judges nationwide is determined by caseload.

“We’re not running an assembly line,” Gagne said. “We provide hearings and due process to individuals based on what their individual case requires.”

Another hurdle in San Diego and elsewhere is the issuance of travel documents. Certain countries, including Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Iran and Somalia, do not have repatriation agreements with the Unites States. Others, including some former Soviet republics, refuse to recognize citizens born before or after certain dates. Some countries are slow or reluctant to issue travel documents, often wary of taking back criminal deportees.

“Let’s face it, a lot of these countries don’t want these people back,” said Nora Antunez, assistant field office director for detention and removal in San Diego.

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