WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (search) promised Tuesday to end the "catch and release" policy that has allowed tens of thousands of non-Mexican illegal aliens to disappear within the United States.
"Return every single illegal entrant — no exceptions," Chertoff said in prepared testimony to a Senate Judiciary Committee (search) hearing on proposals to overhaul the immigration system.
Chertoff was joined by Labor Secretary Elaine Chao in presenting administration views on the illegal immigrant problem. He said President Bush remains committed to a comprehensive approach including gaining control of the border, enforcing workplace laws and establishing a temporary worker program.
On Monday, Sen. John Cornyn (search), R-Texas, a leading proponent of changing immigration policy, said the Judiciary Committee, now occupied with Supreme Court nominations and other issues, won't put together an immigration bill until at least January.
That would push the politically sensitive issue into an election year, adding another factor of difficulty in getting a bill through Congress. Leaders in both the House and Senate have suggested taking up a more narrow bill this year that concentrates on beefing up enforcement, leaving the tougher issue of reforming the system for a later day.
Chertoff said that the nearly 900,000 Mexicans who are caught entering United States every year are returned immediately to Mexico, "but other parts of the system have nearly collapsed under the weight of numbers."
In the budget year that ended last month, the Border Patrol (search) apprehended more than 160,000 non-Mexican nationals, but only 30,000 were removed from the United States. The others were released, often on their own recognizance, because there is no place to hold them. Few return for immigration hearings, he said.
Chertoff said it is should be possible to achieve significant progress in reversing that policy in less than a year, noting that his department's budget for fiscal 2006 includes $90 million in new money to add hundreds of beds. He said his agency also plans to expand use of an expedited removal program that could cut the average time in detention from 90 to 45 days.
Cornyn, in prepared remarks, agreed that Congress must approve more money to enforce immigration law and make substantive changes to existing laws so the Homeland Security Department can quickly remove illegal aliens.
But he also said there must be improved avenues for legal immigration.
Bush last year expressed support of a guest worker program, but lawmakers are divided over whether people already working in this country illegally should be allowed to stay.
Cornyn and Sen. Jon Kyl (search), R-Ariz., are sponsoring a bill that would give illegal immigrants five years to leave the country, but allow them to return through legal channels, including a guest worker program.
Sens. John McCain (search), R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., back a bill that would let illegal immigrants apply for a temporary work visa for up to six years, after which they must return home or apply for permanent residency.