Editor's Note: This is the second in a three-part series examining security issues on U.S. borders.
HARLINGEN - Several times a day, a chain-link gate rolls open, and dozens of illegal immigrants stroll out of the U.S. Border Patrol station here, blinking into the hot Texas sun as they look for taxis to the bus station and a ticket out of town.
Each holds a piece of paper that Spanish-speakers call a "permiso" - permission, courtesy of the U.S. government, to roam the country freely.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, more than 118,000 undocumented migrants who were caught after sneaking over the nation's borders have walked right out of custody with a permiso in hand.
They were from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Brazil. And also Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Yemen - among 35 countries of "special interest" because of purported sponsorship or support of terrorism.
These are the so-called OTM, or "Other Than Mexican," migrants too far from their homelands to be shipped right back. More than 70,000 have hit U.S. streets just since October.
The Border Patrol is catching them riding inner tubes across the Rio Grande or trekking through farm fields. But the government has no place to put all the "OTMs" while they await deportation hearings, so they are released with a notice to appear in immigration court.
Many don't show - disappearing, instead, among the estimated 10 million undocumented migrants living in America.
In the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2001, 5,251 non-Mexicans were freed on their own recognizance from Border Patrol custody, according to statistics the agency provided. In fiscal year 2002, that rose to 5,725. Fiscal 2003: 7,972. Fiscal 2004: 34,161.
Last year's number included at least 91 illegal immigrants from "special-interest" countries.
Releases have soared again this year. With four months left in the fiscal cycle, 70,624 OTMs have been released on their own recognizance - or 70 percent of all non-Mexicans apprehended by the Border Patrol. That includes 50 undocumented migrants from "special-interest" countries, Border Patrol spokesman Salvador Zamora says.
Authorities stress that apprehended illegal immigrants routinely are screened, and any determined to be a risk are detained. Individuals from "special-interest" nations aren't necessarily more likely to be terrorist threats than others, they note.
Still, front-line officers voice concern that so many who break the law to enter the country are systematically set free.
"I absolutely believe that the next attack we have will come from somebody who has come across the border illegally," says Eugene Davis, retired deputy chief of the Border Patrol sector in Blaine, Wash. "To me, we have no more border security now than we had prior to Sept. 11. Anybody who believes we're safer, they're living in Neverland."
'Catch and release'
The afternoon is fading quickly, and 20 illegal immigrants sit under a hackberry tree near the Rio Grande.
"I betcha dollars to doughnuts that there's a bunch of OTMs in there," Border Patrol Agent Eddie Flores says, swinging his SUV to a stop. He's right: This group consists of one Honduran, six Brazilians and the rest Costa Ricans, all unfazed at being apprehended by immigration officers. One Brazilian woman smiles even, then fires off something in Portuguese.
Agent Julio Garcia translates: "They're depending on me."
They're depending on the very system charged with capturing unlawful entrants to help them go free. Nowadays, OTMs often flock to Border Patrol agents rather than fleeing them.
Of the 834,731 apprehensions made by the Border Patrol so far this fiscal year, 100,142 were non-Mexican arrests. That's a 137 percent increase from the 42,167 non-Mexicans arrested in the year of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Illegal immigrants from Mexico and Canada typically choose to voluntarily depart and can be returned home almost immediately upon being caught. Those from other countries must undergo deportation proceedings and await flights to their nations. A growing number of those are freed with a notice to appear because of lack of holding space.
The so-called "catch and release" arrangement happens most frequently in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, where 91 percent of non-Mexicans caught by Border Patrol agents are then freed, statistics show.
Most of those arrested in the region are from Brazil, Honduras and El Salvador, though arrests of illegal immigrants from the 35 "special-interest" countries doubled from two dozen in fiscal 2003 to about four dozen in fiscal 2004, according to internal Border Patrol statistics obtained by The Associated Press.
Nationally, Zamora says, 644 migrants from "special-interest" countries were apprehended by Border Patrol in fiscal 2004; more than 450 have been nabbed so far this fiscal year.
Detention space, meanwhile, barely has grown.
Congress in the past two years funded 19,444 immigration detention beds nationally, says Manny Van Pelt, spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. An extra 1,950 bed spaces were approved in May.
The Border Patrol, as it checks apprehended entrants' names against terrorist watch lists and crime databases, contacts ICE's Office of Detention and Removal to see if there's holding space. Unless the entrant is a convict or on a watch list, the answer often is no - and migrants are cut loose.
"It's creating an environment in which people can go around unnoticed," says James Edwards Jr. of the conservative Hudson Institute think tank. "They can easily obtain false identities. ... That's a mighty big risk."
Zamora says only 91 of the 644 undocumented "special-interest" migrants arrested by the Border Patrol in fiscal 2004 were released, and that the others were turned over to ICE for detention. However, the Border Patrol refused to provide the AP with a country-by-country breakdown of undocumented migrants released on their own recognizance.
Migrants from terror-watch countries are vetted not only by Border Patrol agents and criminal database checks, but also federal Joint Terrorism Task Force investigators, says Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.
"An alien from a special-interest country who presents absolutely no risk - is that someone you're going to detain? Or are you going to detain a drug dealer or a child predator from a country that's not on the special-interest country list?" he says.
Authorities point out that a new "expedited removal" program, focusing on the quick return of non-Mexicans to their home countries, has resulted in 7,000 deportations. Still, word is out among migrants that if they can make it across the border, they might get walking papers.
"I had 46 of them standing there at the side of the road. That's the first thing they ask me, 'Immigration?'" says Joe Serna, one of two police officers in La Grulla, west of Harlingen. "Best we can do is check them for weapons."
Homeland security officials say spotting would-be terrorists is the No. 1 priority of border guards. But veteran line officers note databases can't always detect whether a migrant is using a fake name. And while they're processing OTMs, other illegal entrants are getting by.
Pakistani Farida Goolam Mahomed Ahmed was arrested last July at the McAllen airport as she tried to board a plane to New York. She carried $7,300 in various currencies and a passport with pages missing. Agents later learned she had waded across the Rio Grande. She was deported in March.
In February, the reputed leader of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, gang was arrested after he crossed from Mexico into Texas. Ever Anibal Rivera Paz was found 100 miles north of the Rio Grande, hiding in the trunk of a car. He is jailed in Houston.
Others who are caught, and then released, fail to show up for immigration hearings.
The Harlingen Immigration Court, one of 53 nationwide, incurs more no-shows than any other: 87 percent of migrants failed to appear and were ordered deported "in absentia" in fiscal 2004. Nationally, that failure-to-appear rate stands at about 22 percent.
ICE estimates a cumulative 465,000 undocumented immigrants - visa overstays, illegal entrants and others unlawfully in the States - have received final orders of removal but remain at-large.
The list now includes four of the six Brazilians Flores and Garcia apprehended under the hackberry tree.
Twenty-four hours after they were caught, the group walked out of Border Patrol custody. A shuttle operated by the Harlingen bus station provided a ride to the terminal. There, after presenting a clerk with their permisos, the Brazilians each purchased $25 one-way tickets to Houston.
Only two returned for their June 9 court date. The four no-shows were ordered deported "in absentia."
n NEXT: Canada and the United States still have not mastered the historic openness of the northern border.
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