Monday, November 22, 2004

Illegal Immigration is A National Security Issue

Border Crisis Becomes Homeland Security Concern
Lack Of Detention Space Leads To Detainee Release

HOUSTON -- A problem at the border could lead to a Homeland Security threat, the Local 2 Troubleshooters reported Wednesday. It is not about illegal immigration. It's about terrorism, the safety of our southern border and a lack of critical resources forcing the government to release people into our communities.

Every day, immigrants illegally run across our southern border unchecked. Homeland Security officials are not as concerned with the ones from Mexico as they are with the ones who may be hidden within other groups -- the ones our government refers to as OTMs, known as Other Than Mexicans, such as people from Central and South America, and countries like Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Nationwide, our government has lost track of 400,000 of these OTMs.

The problem is felt in almost every Texas border town.

In Del Rio, Tommy Vick spent the last 15 years on the banks of the Rio Grande where the water is barely ankle deep. Vick expects to see illegals using his backyard as a gateway to the U.S. What he did not expect to see was a man in his front yard asking for work.

"He appeared to be Anglo, but he had an accent. I was talking to him and he was Russian. He was from Russia," Vick said.

Val Verde County Sheriff D'Wayne Jernigan sees anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 OTMs released into his community every month.

"At a time when we're so concerned with terrorism in our country, we don't know who is coming into our country. We don't know. We don't know. We don't know who these people are," Jernigan said.

In Eagle Pass, so many OTMs are being released daily to roam the streets, border patrol officers call it "OTM alley."

"If Homeland Security is important, then this should stop immediately," said Pepe Aranda, Maverick County judge.

"They've got to be desperate. They don't have a job. They don't have any money. They put them out on the street. What are they going to do?" Vick said.

"They just fade into the populous -- New York City, Boston, San Antonio, Houston," Jernigan said.

The reason that so many OTMs are disappearing from law enforcement's radar is because the U.S. does not have enough detention space to hold all of them while our government works out deportation arrangements, the station reported.

When OTMs are released because of a lack of bed space, they are issued what's called a "notice to appear." The two-page form tells the person to appear before an immigration judge on a "date to be set" at "a time to be set." But when you look at the line where it asks for an address and phone number, it can say, "failed to provide."

"I was appalled that we know so little about these people. And so little about how to locate them in the future," Jernigan said.

They are set free into our communities. Congressional reports show upwards of 90 percent of these people never show up for their court date and just disappear.

A Department of Justice report shows of all the immigrants from so-called terrorism nations who were caught and then released because of a lack of bed space, we have only been able to track down and deport 6 percent of them.

"Every individual that is encountered, whether it be by border patrol or whether it be by ICE, is going to be subjected to a variety of interviews and fingerprinted," said Luisa Aquino-Deason, with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement department.

Not one of the agents-in-charge of customs and border patrol, or Immigrations and Customs Enforcement would answer Local 2's questions. When the Troubleshooters contacted the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., no one could answer their questions either. Instead, Local 2 was sent to Aquino-Deason, the public affairs officer.

"How do you know what they're here for when you have no idea where they're going or even how to get in touch with them?" Local 2's Robert Arnold asked.

"We go through a variety of lengths to ensure that the people that we release when we have a restriction on bed space is not someone who is going to be a very high risk to your community," Aquino-Deason said.

"It's impossible. It's impossible to interview all of them thoroughly, when you release them so quickly. It's impossible," Jernigan said.

But all those people are the ones the government knows about. There are plenty who cross our Texas border undetected.

In Cuidad Acuna, just across the border from Del Rio, you learn pretty quickly the people don't ask questions about the strangers who pass through their town, according to Arnold. That is except for two men Local 2 found sitting on a park bench. Their job is to sit on the park bench and wait for their cell phones to ring.

One of the men would not talk on camera, but told Local 2 that he has arranged deals to smuggle both Iraqis and Pakistanis because they pay the most.

The man who actually smuggles the people across the border agreed to talk on camera, as long as Local 2 agreed to not show his face.

He said he has smuggled people from Japan, Taiwan and Germany. But it's the ones he refers to as the "others" that make him nervous.

"I noticed they had some knowledge of the military, which made me nervous because I didn't know if I was crossing terrorists over. When we see those people, they're usually accompanied by South Americans. They come to us through another client. They've already paid another client that gets them through Central America to Mexico to the U.S. border," the man said.

"One of the most shocking things is just how porous the border is even after 9/11," said U.S. Rep. Jim Turner.

Turner is a Texas congressman who is on the House Select Committee for Homeland Security.

"It's hard to contend we're making America safe if we know the southern border is still open and can be used as an access point for al-Qaida operatives," Turner said.

"Buried within the thousands that are coming across, it would be so easy for the next terrorist to be hidden and strike our country totally unaware," Jernigan said.

"You have a choice. You can put up with it, live with it. You can stay here and you might get hurt, might have to hurt someone. We shouldn't have to live like that, not in the United States of America," Vick said.

The reason there is a shortage of detention space is because of unbalanced funding priorities, Local 2 reported. Money was spent to beef up the number of agents patrolling our borders. As a result, the number of OTMs arrested jumped 69 percent. Yet, almost no money has been spent to build new detention centers.

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