It seems like a no-brainer. If Americans can't agree on how to treat illegal immigrants who are otherwise law-abiding, then focus on the ones who aren't. The experience of Boulder County, Colo., Sheriff Joe Pelle shows it's not easy. When Pelle last year sent federal authorities the names of 1,500 jail inmates he believed to be foreign nationals, only 12 were deported.
Pelle's is a typical story. A recent report by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general estimated that there were 630,000 foreign nationals in U.S. jails, but only 79,000—or 12.5 percent—were deported in 2005. Although the numbers have since improved, authorities lack the resources to keep up with all criminal aliens behind bars.
It's a problem some in Congress hope to fix. Both houses have measures to increase funding for the criminal alien program by 30.9 percent to $180 million. "There is simply no excuse for failing to identify every deportable alien," says Democratic Rep. David Price of North Carolina.
Although federal law calls for deporting noncitizens with criminal records, some immigration activists have criticized the policy because it can return minor offenders to countries they may not have lived in for years.
The bill is one of a number of narrow proposals that have cropped up since the recent failure of broader immigration reform. One bill seeks more funding for the Border Patrol. Another would make it easier for agricultural laborers to move toward a legal status. A third seeks to give juvenile illegal immigrants who go through college or the military a chance at legal residency.
The piecemeal approach may make some short-term difference. But, says Pelle, the larger question of what to do with millions of illegal immigrants will remain. "I don't think the problem is going to be enforced away," he says.