Setting terrorists free

Posted: Apr 28, 2005 12:00 AM

The Department of Homeland Security is releasing drug smugglers and human traffickers, and perhaps even suspected terrorists and violent felons, as a matter of policy ? because it doesn?t have the resources to keep them in custody.

In a classified memo issued last fall, the DHS laid out ?priorities? for handling illegal aliens who?ve been apprehended within the United States.

In a bullet-point list, the October 2004 memo ? obtained exclusively by this columnist ? separates all captured illegals into four categories: ?Mandatory,? ?High Priority,? ?Medium Priority,? and ?Lower Priority.?

Only the worst violent felons (think rapists and murderers), individuals known to be terrorists, and those who have been previously deported are deemed ?mandatory? holds. Everyone else can be released if no space is available.

Among illegals not deemed ?mandatory? holds:

? "Aliens who are subject to an ongoing national security investigation."

? Aliens whom we aren't sure are terrorists but who still "raise a national security concern" based on "specific information or intelligence specific to the individual" ? in other words, suspected terrorists.

? Aliens who "exhibit specific, articulable intelligence-based risk factors for terrorism or national security concern."

Perhaps more disturbing: Buried beneath the four groups listed as ?mandatory? and eight as ?high priority,? suspected drug smugglers and human traffickers are merely ?medium priority.?

Border Patrol agents find it particularly disconcerting to release human traffickers, whom they view as both murderers and grave security threats ? people with no scruples who will take anyone across the border, for a price.

When they are released according to the procedures in the memo, the illegal aliens are given notices to appear for a hearing. Of course, most don?t. ?The number is actually around 3 percent,? notes Center for Immigration Study analyst Jessica Vaughan.

Political correctness can be seen in the classified memo.  It explicitly prohibits racial ? or even national origin ? profiling.  A determination for holding an individual cannot be ?based solely on the alien?s race, ethnicity, nationality or religion.?  In other words, 19 Saudi Muslims are considered no greater security threat ? or deemed more important for detainment ? than 19 Mexican farm hands.

But don?t blame DHS. It?s the law. DHS couldn?t assess risk based on an illegal?s race or national origin even if it wanted to.  For over two decades, immigration law has forbidden consideration of race or national origin.

DHS, in fact, has little control over the overall number of people who can be physically held pending removal or deportation hearings ? because it has very few places to hold them: Only 19,400 beds for the entire country (down from 23,000 just last year).

Congress thought it had solved this problem. Last year?s intelligence bill called for 40,000 new beds ? 8,000 per year from 2006 through 2010. Lawmakers also authorized adding 800 agents for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the DHS agency with the sole authority for detaining illegals.

When President Bush put forward his budget this year, however, both items got the shaft. Bush?s spending blueprint calls for only 1,920 new beds and just 143 additional ICE agents ? a fifth of what Congress dictated.

ICE?s budget woes are not unknown. Last summer, Government Executive ran a story about how the agency?s financial shortfalls were leading to the release of criminal illegal aliens. The article quoted an ICE official who wrote in an internal agency e-mail, ?Here it is in a nutshell . . . We are BROKE.?

?Catch and release? (as Border Patrol agents call it) has become commonplace. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the homeland security Appropriations subcommittee, says, ?There [are] roughly 465,000 absconders . . . [and] 45,000 of those are criminals.?  One Congressional official places the latter figure at 90,000.

The department needs hundreds more immigration-enforcement agents and thousands more detention beds ? to arrest and then detain illegals ?who are subject to an ongoing national-security investigation? or who ?raise a national security concern.?

Which means, first and foremost, a change in spending priorities. What kind of ?homeland security? is it when money is going to ?first responders? in Vermont and South Dakota and not for detaining suspected terrorists?