DHS tightens the Mexican border
As the immediate hurricane recovery recedes, immigration has become the focus of the Bush administration.
The president has held meetings with lawmakers in recent weeks to discuss his guest-worker proposal.
But also as part of the immigration initiative, the Department of Homeland Security last month quietly instituted two controversial measures designed to shore up the escalating situation on the border. One proposal makes it easier for officials to remove non-Mexican illegal immigrants, popularly called "other than Mexicans" or OTMs, while another adds yet one more level of fortification to a metal wall stretching along parts of the border.
"They clearly did this when no one was looking," says Tim Edgar, an immigration specialist with the American Civil Liberties Union. "And I'm worried DHS is trying to set new norms for how we treat immigrants in the United States."
So what are they worked up about, exactly? One measure basically expands the DHS's authority to conduct "expedited removal," a process that allows it to remove OTMs without first granting them a hearing in front of an immigration judge. There are some restrictions: OTMs eligible for the rapid-removal process must be captured within 100 miles of the southwest border, and they must not be able to prove they've been in the United States for more than two weeks.
Says Edgar: "The treatment is identical to how we treat Haitian immigrants the Coast Guard intercepts in the middle of the ocean." Border Patrol officials patrolling less than half the southwest border began testing the program in 2004. The new rules put expedited removal into effect for the entire 2,062-mile southwest border.
With its second major recent initiative, DHS ended 10 years of stalemate by announcing it would fill in a 3.5-mile gap in the corrugated metal border fence that currently separates California from Tijuana, Mexico. Republicans in the House, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, had placed a clause in the controversial Real ID Act, passed in May, giving Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff permission to complete the fence without regard to environmental or legal challenges. (Chertoff also plans to add a second layer to the fence and to add motion-sensitive cameras and stadium-style lighting to the structure.)
"With this law in place," says Mark Delaplaine, a project analyst with the California Coastal Commission, a longtime foe of the fence, "we know we're completely out of options."
Bridging the gap in the fence requires the movement of 2 million cubic yards of earth and will result in the filling in of Smuggler's Gulch, the canyon so nicknamed because of its immigrant traffic. The area is home to rare sage grasses, among other environmental treasures, and Delaplaine says the government has spent $50 million over the years preserving the area. "I guess our priorities have changed," he muses.
According to a high-level official at DHS, the two initiatives are a window into DHS's larger border strategy, expected sometime this winter.
"This secretary," the official says, "is determined to revolutionize the way [the Border Patrol] handles OTM immigrants." His strategy: ensuring that all OTMs are either immediately imprisoned or sent back to their home countries through expedited removal procedures. Today, most OTMs are caught and then re-released into societyand only 38 percent show up for subsequent court dates, according to federal statistics. Because of the legal issues surrounding expedited removal, the secretary's staff has supposedly floated plans that would add 10,000 detention beds, ensuring that no OTMs would be released for lack of space. The Senate appropriations bill passed earlier this year would have added more than 2,000 beds, which was considered dramatic by almost any standard.
"They know this problem is huge," the official says. "And the secretary and the president are thinking entirely outside the box."
Also on the Hill this week: Colin Hanna, head of a campaign known as "We Need a Fence." His website (www.weneedafence.com) advocates creating a fence similar to the one built to separate sections of the West Bank from the rest of Israelthink ditches, barbed wire, concretealong the U.S. border with Mexico. His handlers say he's already met with several prominent members of Congress and appeared on CNN.