Federal officials are expelling more than 1,000 foreigners each week--sometimes within hours of their arrival--under "expedited removal" procedures adopted this spring, the Immigration and Naturalization Service said Wednesday in its first detailed report on the controversial new process.
The U.S.-Mexico border crossing at San Diego--the world's busiest border post--leads the nation in such cases, the INS said. The Los Angeles and San Francisco International Airports also account for many of the speedy new expulsions legalized by last year's sweeping overhaul of immigration law.
The new federal statute replaced traditional deportation proceedings with a "removal" process that dramatically limits foreigners' opportunity to obtain court hearings before their expulsion. Under the old law, all people facing deportation or barred from entering the United States--a process heretofore known as "exclusion"--had access to hearings before immigration judges whose decisions were subject to appeal.
Congressional supporters of the change say it will reduce rampant abuse of the process; they say many illegal immigrants never showed up for their court hearings and disappeared into the nation's interior. Advocates of immigrant rights argue that the new procedure strips people of due-process protections and could result in many being sent back to countries with repressive regimes where their lives might be threatened.
Overall, the INS said, about 5% of all cases subject to quick removal have been referred by INS inspectors to officers specially trained to assess claims of political asylum. The great majority of those referred--about 80%--have demonstrated a "credible fear" of persecution at home and have been allowed to have their claims heard by immigration judges, the agency said.
"The numbers indicate that our officers are using their new powers of authority prudently and cautiously," said Phyllis Coven, director of the agency's office of international affairs.
But critics of the new process say there is no way of knowing how many people were wrongly sent back home to face torture and death.
"There's no safeguard to check on the persons who are simply returned home," said Charles Wheeler, senior attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.
In a recent case, Wheeler said, several Chinese with legitimate claims of political asylum were almost sent back to their homeland before finally being granted an opportunity to file for asylum.
The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging expedited removal in federal court in Washington as a violation of constitutional rights. But the ACLU was unable to persuade a judge to block implementation beyond April 1, when the provision of the new law went into effect.
Overall, asylum seekers from 60 nations have been referred by INS inspectors to so-called asylum officers trained to determine whether people's asylum claims are legitimate.
The vast majority of people placed in expedited removal proceedings have been from Mexico, mostly at San Diego and other ports of entry along the Mexican border, the INS said. The nationalities most heavily represented among those given an opportunity to seek asylum were Chinese (17%) and Sri Lankan (15%).
Using data gathered from 25 of its busiest ports of entry, the INS said 1,200 "cases" per week were subject to the expedited removal process at those sites, which accounted for about 62% of all entries by noncitizens last year. A "case" is typically an individual but may be a family, the INS said, so more than 1,200 people per week have affected.
In 95% of all instances, the INS said, those lacking proper documents have been prohibited from entering the country. The other 5% were given an opportunity to be interviewed about their political asylum claims.
Of those turned back at borders and airports, the agency said, most have been formally removed--meaning they will be barred for five years from returning to the United States. But about one-third have been allowed to withdraw their applications without future sanctions.
Simple withdrawal may be appropriate, the INS said, if those arriving lack proper documents "innocently," rather than through an effort to circumvent the law.
McDonnell reported from Los Angeles, Bass from Washington.