By ABE LEVY
Associated Press Writer
EAGLE PASS, Texas- Illegal immigrants crossing part of the Texas-Mexico border will be detained and deported now that officials are cracking down on a "catch-and-release" policy that was meant to save jail space but ended up being a free pass into the country.
The catch-and-release method drew up to 150 non-Mexican immigrants near Eagle Pass each day last year, many actually hoping to get caught because the policy allowed them stay in the U.S. if they promised to appear in court after 30 days. About 90 percent failed to show. The policy didn't apply to Mexicans because immigration agents would simply drive them back.
For the new crackdown, authorities made available prison space for immigrants arrested in this high-traffic zone. If caught, they are prosecuted for illegal entry, a misdemeanor. If convicted, they are sentenced to up to 180 days in jail while deportation proceedings begin.
The designated zone includes Eagle Pass, a town about 140 miles (225 kilometers) southwest of San Antonio, and parts of the 205-mile (330-kilometer) border in the Del Rio Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol. However, Border Patrol spokesman Hilario Leal wouldn't specify the zone or when the temporary program will end.
If the program is successful, Leal said, it will be extended to more zones and maybe become permanent.
Named "Operation Streamline II," the crackdown was launched Dec. 12 and reflects the urgency from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to clamp down on the situation.
"The president and the attorney general and Michael Chertoff made it clear that we've got to do a better job and end the days of catch and release," said U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, whose Western District includes Eagle Pass. Non-Mexicans "are taking advantage of our system because the word has gotten back to their countries that they can obtain a free pass to the interior. That has got to stop."
The Rev. Jim Loiacono, an Eagle Pass priest who heads a ministry for illegal immigrants, said he respects the right of a nation to protect its borders but that the initiative appears to offer an inappropriate "one size fits all" approach.
"If you want to send them back, that's different _ but putting them in jail?" Loiacono said. "You see a mother with her child. She's sopping wet and disoriented and tired. To treat them humanely is certainly not going to doom our country's security."
Other immigrant advocates said the catch-and-release policy gave immigrants time to find legal remedies for being in the country. The crackdown eliminates that opportunity, they say.
"Any time you have a faster system, it's going to deny people their rights," said Alpha Hernandez, managing attorney for the Del Rio office of the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. "It's hard to imagine that we are going to turn it into such a big crime for just coming over looking for work."