Chertoff on Bolstering U.S. Border Security

In an exclusive interview with NPR, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff talks about agency plans to tighten the southern U.S. border and ending the "catch and release" policy. The policy of releasing illegal immigrants has been criticized as a potential way for terrorists to enter the country.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Security along the border and illegal immigration are expected to take center stage in Washington next year, especially as midterm elections approach. Congress has already begun debating a number of proposals and the Bush administration is renewing its push for a temporary worker program. Secretary Chertoff recently announced a new plan to tighten border security. He spoke this week with NPR's Pam Fessler.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

One of the complaints Secretary Chertoff says he hears most often is about a border policy known at catch-and-release.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Homeland Security): Right now when we catch people at the border, if they're Mexicans, we return them right away. If they're non-Mexicans, our ability to return them depends on how quickly we can get them back to their native countries.

FESSLER: Most often, it's not quickly at all, and there isn't enough room to detain all of the estimated 165,000 non-Mexicans caught at the border.

Sec. CHERTOFF: So they get released. Well, of course, once they get released on bail, they never come back. That has been a huge hole in our system because it actually encourages non-Mexicans to come and turn themselves in because they know that once they're caught they're going to get released. In a nutshell, that's crazy.

FESSLER: Crazy and potentially dangerous, since some people fear a terrorist might try to take this route. So Chertoff is promising to close the loophole by October of next year. He plans to do that in part by using 2,000 extra detention beds funded this year by Congress. That brings the total to about 20,000, a number Chertoff thinks he can leverage by reducing the time it takes to deport detainees.

Sec. CHERTOFF: Some of that is bureaucratic stuff we're cutting. Some of it frankly involves dealing with foreign countries and negotiating with them to make sure they take back their own people.

FESSLER: Which they're not always willing to do. Some immigrant advocates have concerns with efforts to speed up deportation proceedings. Angela Kelley is deputy director of the National Immigration Forum.

Ms. ANGELA KELLEY (Deputy Director, National Immigration Forum): Sometimes in our rush to deport people and then kind of trying to catch everybody in one big net, we may ensnare people who have legal rights to being here. And, you know, the faster we do this by people with less and less training, the greater the error rate.

FESSLER: She's even more concerned, though, that Chertoff's moves to tighten border security will have little impact on the broader issue of illegal immigration. He's also called for greater use of surveillance technology and a beefed-up border patrol. Many in the president's own party want even tougher measures to stop illegal immigrants. One leading House Republican, Duncan Hunter of California, has proposed building a fence along the entire US-Mexican border, but Chertoff says tighter security will only do so much, that it needs to be paired with President Bush's plan to allow immigrants into the country as guest workers.

Sec. CHERTOFF: There is a tremendous pull on migration by the demand for workers in this country. If we don't address that demand, we are putting the maximum pressure on our agents to hold the line, and I think a smart way to do enforcement is to find a way to channel that demand in a regulated fashion and then that gives our Border Patrol agents the ability to focus on the migrants we really want to keep out because they're dangerous or they're criminals or they don't really want to come to do anything productive.

FESSLER: But the president's plan faces opposition from those who think it amounts to amnesty and from those who say it doesn't deal with the 11 million illegal immigrants already inside the United States. Congress plans to begin debating all of these issues in earnest early next year.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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