OPINION

Opinion: Obama’s 'catch and release' border strategy seeks security without processing

TOHONO O'ODHAM NATION, AZ - JANUARY 19:  Undocumented Mexican immigrants walk through the Sonoran Desert after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border border on January 19, 2011 into the Tohono O'odham Nation, Arizona. The immigrants said they had wandered the desert lost for a week after crossing from Mexico into the vast Indian reservation at night. Exhausted, they requested the Border Patrol to pick them up and take them to the U.S.-Mexico border, from where they would return to their homes in the Mexican state of Sonora. They had come, they said, to reach Phoenix and find work in construction or landscaping. All said they had worked in Arizona before.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

TOHONO O'ODHAM NATION, AZ - JANUARY 19: Undocumented Mexican immigrants walk through the Sonoran Desert after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border border on January 19, 2011 into the Tohono O'odham Nation, Arizona. The immigrants said they had wandered the desert lost for a week after crossing from Mexico into the vast Indian reservation at night. Exhausted, they requested the Border Patrol to pick them up and take them to the U.S.-Mexico border, from where they would return to their homes in the Mexican state of Sonora. They had come, they said, to reach Phoenix and find work in construction or landscaping. All said they had worked in Arizona before. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)  (2011 Getty Images)

The administration’s current approach to dealing with detained illegal immigrants has been characterized as “catch and release.” It is an apt term. In fishing, “catch and release” is designed to preserve a population, and that is precisely what the Obama Administration’s border policies are doing in the American pond—preserving a population of dangerous, deported individuals with a criminal history who re-enter the United States illegally.

The “catch and release” approach undercuts the rule of law, and it ensures taxpayers’ money and safety will be sacrificed for a border immigration.

- Nelson Balido

Late last year, a leaked Department of Homeland Security document revealed that there are 176,000 illegal immigrants in the United States who were convicted in a court of law, lawfully deported from the United States and then returned. In addition to those proven criminals are those who go on to commit crimes after their premature release. As reported in April this year, Jonny Alberto Enamorado-Vasquez, an illegal immigrant from Honduras, was released from detention for “lack of space” and is now in a Houston jail on homicide charges. Jalmar Mejia-Lopez, initially booked as a 17-year-old when he crossed into the United States illegally, has been charged with aggravated rape for impregnating his 12-year-old girlfriend.

The Obama Administration is pushing for faster clearing of detention centers, ignoring rule of law in lieu of more expedient dictatorial direction. In some cases, the Administration’s approach ensures dangerous criminals never even reach federal custody. Take the Obama Administration’s Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), for example, which replaced the Bush-era Secure Communities program. PEP ties Immigration and Customers Enforcement (ICE) agents’ hands, limiting collaboration with state and local law enforcement while severely restricting when they can take custody of an illegal immigrant with a criminal conviction.

Such a blunt, limiting approach to a complex situation is not only illegal but may also reignite the massive influx of people streaming across the border who believe (perhaps correctly) that weak U.S. immigration enforcement will allow them to dodge U.S. law and find residency. In 2014, more than 60,000 families poured into the United States from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and elsewhere. That tsunami of illegal immigration has subsided to a raging river, but it could surge again at any point.

Meanwhile, unilateral direction from the White House sends the wrong message to the dedicated Americans risking their lives on the border. Giving credit where due, the Border Patrol is working hard to better monitor the border and stop people who sneak into the United States. But there are laws on the books they are sworn to follow. If detention facilities are forcibly emptied before investigative and immigration workers have completed their processing protocols, what does that tell the Border Patrol or ICE agent who signed up to enforce the law, not circumvent it?

Most concerning about the Administration’s “catch and release” approach is that it puts millions of Americans in danger, particularly those in the Hispanic community. Many criminal immigrants flock to sanctuary cities, which, by local law or tradition, shelter illegal immigrants. Yet, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 75% of former prisoners in 30 states are arrested within 5 years of their release. It takes little deduction to recognize that creating a safe-haven for criminals jeopardizes the community in which they live, which in a sanctuary city may well be largely Hispanic.

Recently, Sen. Cruz (R-TX) held a hearing examining the number of illegal immigrants who are convicted of crimes and then return to our streets. Sen. Cruz explained that in 2013, 104,000 convicted criminals were released, since the Obama administration has refused to deport 68K criminals, required by federal law, and has also released 36,000 with criminal records who were in deportation hearings in 2013.

The hearing also included testimony from families of recent victims of illegal criminal violence:

  • In January, Grant Ronnebeck was shot while clerking at a convenience store.
  • In the fall, Michael Davis, Jr. and Danny Oliver, Sacramento law enforcement officers, were killed as they tried to protect residents.
  • In July, Kate Steinle was shot on Pier 14 in San Francisco.

Kate’s father, Jim Steinle, summed up the injustice many now endure: "Unfortunately due to disjointed laws, and basic incompetence on many levels, the U.S. has suffered a self-inflicted wound in the murder of our daughter by the hand of a person that should have never been on the streets of this country.”

Sens. Cruz and Session have each introduced measures to curb this crime. Sen. Cruz’s legislation, named “Kate’s Law” in her honor, establishes a five-year minimum sentence for anyone who illegally reenters the country.

Flinging open the detention doors for illegal immigrants to waltz freely into America without precisely following laws for detention, processing and deportation presents enormous threats. Many of our immigration woes lead right back to an Administration that views its authority as superseding legislation. But laws are not laws if they can be ignored because their implementation is too hard or sometimes unpalatable. 

The “catch and release” approach undercuts the rule of law, and it ensures taxpayers’ money and safety will be sacrificed for a border immigration strategy that almost guarantees we are putting sharks back into the American pond.

Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.  Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido

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