The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service is planning a major expansion of its far-flung detention facilities in the Southwest that would increase capacity from 1,000 people to more than 1,600, authorities said.
The plans include buying a newly built, 250-bed minimum-security prison in Yuma, Ariz., and converting the INS regional headquarters at Terminal Island into a 400-bed detention center. These plans come at a time when arrests of illegal aliens along the U.S.-Mexico border are plunging, perhaps partly as a result of recently enacted immigration law changes, leading some critics to question the need for such expansion.
If realized, the expansions also would shift the pattern of housing aliens and could lead to higher bails for some of them, according to INS Regional Commissioner Harold Ezell.
Ezell said it is too early to tell for certain whether arrests are actually down. In any case, he said, existing detention centers in El Centro, Calif., and Florence, Ariz., have been at capacity--forcing immigration authorities to set "unreasonably" low bonds for some arrested aliens or to release them on their own recognizance pending deportation hearings.
Ezell emphasized that the expansion plans, which would amount to a major reorganization of INS regional detention facilities, are not related to the new Immigration Control and Reform Act and have been in the works for several years.
Instead, he said, the aim is primarily to enhance the INS' ability to detain and deport aliens arrested on criminal charges ranging from murder to illegal reentry after deportation.
"If we can hold criminals and keep them from being cut loose," he said, "our streets and neighborhoods will be safer."
Nonetheless, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the subcommittee on immigration and refugee affairs, is questioning an INS request for supplemental funds to buy additional detention facilities, including the Yuma prison, said Michael Myers, a counsel to the subcommittee.
"Why do they need to expand detention when apprehensions seem to be going down?" Myers asked.
Large Drop in Arrests
Indeed, in the San Diego area, which usually accounts for more than a third of all aliens arrested along the border, the Border Patrol recorded 10,393 arrests of illegal crossers in the first two weeks of May--a drop of 65% compared to the 29,924 arrests made during the same period in 1986.
In April, the Border Patrol recorded 34,962 arrests of illegal aliens in the San Diego area--a drop of 51% compared to the record 71,908 arrests in April, 1986.
U.S. authorities have said that various factors may have influenced this decline, including record high water along the Rio Grande, a severe winter in some border areas, the economic downturn in Texas and the implementation of the new immigration laws.
Ezell and other INS officials pointed out that there will be beneficial effects for some illegal aliens if the plans come to pass because, for example, family members will be more likely to be kept together.
Room in Prison Facility
The expansion plans, he said, call for illegal alien families to be housed in the Yuma prison facility. Last month, Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham signed a letter of intent to begin formal negotiations with the INS aimed at selling the state's unopened prison, which cost Arizona about $5 million to build, to the INS. The Arizona Legislature is expected to decide within days whether to allow the sale to go forward.
In addition, the INS administrative building at Terminal Island, which was built in 1937 and is adjacent to the Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institute, would be converted into a detention facility to hold "other than Mexican" aliens. The administrative offices would move to a federal building in Laguna Niguel, Ezell said.
After Due Process
"What we need is a place to gather OTMs (other than Mexicans) that have had their due process," Ezell said, "and get them ready for transport to Los Angeles International Airport, where they would be sent home to places all over the world."
He said aliens with criminal backgrounds who are deemed a threat to society would be kept at the existing detention facility in Florence, Ariz.