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Pauline Arrillagap
Submitted by Gary Reil
July 4, 2005

HARLINGEN, Texas (AP) - 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 freely anywhere in the country.

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, Brazil. But also Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, the Philippines, Yemen - among 35 countries of "special interest" because of alleged 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 this past October.

The Border Patrol is catching them - hundreds each day, riding inner tubes across the Rio Grande, trekking through farm fields and across deserts. 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.

Over the years, thousands have failed to show up - disappearing, instead, among the estimated 10 million undocumented migrants now living in America.

The rate of release is increasing. 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 still 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 are routinely 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."

Outside the Harlingen patrol station, from which more than 10,000 OTMs have been released since November, an agent grumbled recently that he'd dislocated his shoulder while catching one group - then, in no time, they walked free.


The afternoon is quickly fading, and 20 illegal immigrants sit under a hackberry tree less than a mile from 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.

They're passive, patient - not at all bothered at being apprehended by immigration officers. One Brazilian woman smiles, even, and points at agent Julio Garcia as though he's her new best friend. Then she fires off something in Portuguese.

Garcia translates, so used to catching Brazilians he's picked up a bit of the language. "They're depending on me," he says.

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 year leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Illegal immigrants from Mexico and Canada, because they live next-door to the United States, typically choose to voluntarily depart and can be returned home almost immediately upon being caught by border officers. Those from other countries must undergo deportation proceedings and await government flights back to their nations. A growing number of those are freed with a notice-to-appear because of lack of holding space.

"Catch and release," the arrangement is commonly called.

Nowhere is it happening more frequently than in the Rio Grande Valley at the southernmost tip of Texas. Here, 91 percent of non-Mexicans who are caught are quickly released, statistics show.

Most of those arrested in the region are from Brazil, Honduras and El Salvador, though the number of Chinese is rising - from about 50 arrests in fiscal 2003 to more than 700 so far this year, according to internal Border Patrol statistics obtained by The Associated Press.

Arrests of illegal immigrants from "special-interest" countries such as Eritrea, Turkey, Bangladesh, Iran and Iraq doubled in the region from two dozen in fiscal 2003 to about four dozen in fiscal 2004, the internal figures show. 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, has barely 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, or DRO, to see if there's holding space. Unless the entrant is a convict or on a watch list, the answer is often no - and migrants are cut loose.

"It's not homeland security one bit," says James Edwards Jr. of the conservative Hudson Institute think tank. "It's creating an environment in which people can go around unnoticed. They can easily obtain false identities. ... That's a mighty big risk to take."

Knowing detention space is limited, smugglers have instructed illegal migrants to claim asylum, venturing their clients would get released while their cases were reviewed, the Department of Justice has reported.

Algerian Samir Abdoun sought asylum after the Border Patrol caught him entering California from Mexico with a French passport in 1998, federal court records state. Released, he failed to show up at his 1999 asylum hearing. He wasn't arrested until Sept. 22, 2001, after immigration agents learned Abdoun had met for coffee several times with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Abdoun was deported Dec. 31, 2004.

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. Some of those released are juveniles and others are freed for humanitarian reasons, such as illness, says Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Border Patrol and ICE.

"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.

Statistics provided in a letter from the Department of Homeland Security to U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, showed releases of "special-interest" migrants had increased significantly - from at least 60 freed on their own recognizance in fiscal 2002 to at least 381 in fiscal 2004. The letter specifically responded to Ortiz's request for statistics involving illegal immigrants who had been arrested by the Border Patrol.

However, Zamora now says most of the 381 cited were migrants legally residing in the United States who were temporarily detained by Border Patrol agents while their immigration status was verified - and then let go. He says only 91 of the total 644 undocumented "special-interest" migrants arrested by Border Patrol in fiscal 2004 were released, and that the others were turned over for detention.

"Somebody's backtracking," responds Ortiz, whose district includes the Rio Grande Valley. "The border is still very vulnerable and people are still coming across. We still don't have detention facilities, and as long as we don't have them, these numbers are going to keep increasing - as much as they try to change them."

The Border Patrol refused to provide the AP with a country-by-country breakdown of undocumented migrants released on their own recognizance.

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 and into the custody of immigration officers, 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?' I go, 'No, but hold on a sec,'" says Joe Serna, one of two police officers in La Grulla, a no-stoplight hamlet 65 miles west of Harlingen.

He stumbles across immigrants every week, cutting through onion fields or walking along the street, and detains them until the Border Patrol can send a car - sometimes a bus - to pick them up for processing.

"Best we can do," Serna says, "is check them for weapons."

Homeland security officials say spotting would-be terrorists is now 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 may miss crimes committed in other countries. And while they're busy processing OTMs, other illegal entrants are getting by.

Pakistani Farida Goolam Mahomed Ahmed was arrested last July at the airport in nearby McAllen, Texas, 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 waded across the Rio Grande.

Authorities won't confirm whether Ahmed had ties to any terrorist groups, although her case is cited as an example of "anti-terrorism efforts" in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection news release. She was deported in March.

In February, the reputed leader of a violent Honduran 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.

Rivera Paz, alleged head of the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, gang in Honduras, had escaped from a Honduran prison where he was being held on charges of masterminding an attack on a bus that killed 28 people. He is jailed in Houston.

In La Grulla, officer Serna reflects on the group of 46 Brazilians he found not long ago.

"How are 46 people crossing the border without being seen by Border Patrol if we have such a high amount of vigilance here?" he asks. "With this kind of access to the United States, I mean, honestly, if you were a terrorist where would you go through? LaGuardia (Airport)? When you can just walk across over here and: 'Hey, take me to the Border Patrol.'"


Immigration Judge David Ayala has grown accustomed to hearing his own voice reverberate in his empty Harlingen courtroom.

"Nobody's here?" he asks one recent morning from the bench.

The docket call of illegal immigrant absconders begins.

"Marcileia DaSilva Ferraz," Ayala intones. He stamps the date on some papers and says: "In absentia."

"Leny de Fatima Teixeria" - stamp - "in absentia."

"Robson Adriano de-Oliveira" - stamp - "in absentia."

With every name - mostly Brazilians but also a South Korean and a few others - the list of people ICE's National Fugitive Operations team must track down and deport lengthens.

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. There were more than 9,000 such cases at Harlingen, some involving migrants from countries with terror ties.

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.

On a warm afternoon, a half-dozen Brazilian migrants ramble through the exit gate of the Harlingen Border Patrol station, smiling and holding their "permisos." It is the same group caught by Flores and Garcia just 24 hours earlier.

Saying they came to the United States for work, half are destined for Florida, half for New Hampshire, where friends and jobs wait.

It's the end of a long trip. After buying $1,200 vacation packages from Brazil to Mexico City, they say they traveled by bus to the border town of Reynosa and crossed the Rio Grande on inner tubes, clasping duffel bags labeled with the name of the tour operator.

Stepping outside the Border Patrol gates, they are giddy.

"Welcome to America!" 27-year-old Marilza Ramos dos Santos Stafussa exhorts, practicing her spotty English.

Soon, a shuttle operated by the Harlingen bus station pulls up, offering a ride to the terminal. Luther Jones, who makes the rounds several times a day, says of his clientele: "Everyone's trying to hit on the terrorist angle, but they're just good people."

Inside the terminal, the Brazilians buy $25 one-way tickets to Houston, where they plan to get connecting flights.

"Tienen documentos?" the ticket clerk inquires. Do you have documents?

"Permiso?" Ramos asks, using the Spanish word she has learned.

The clerk nods.

Yes! the Brazilians exclaim.

As they board the 10:30 p.m. bus to Houston, the last turns and, beaming, gives a thumbs-up.

Only Ramos and one other would return for their scheduled court date. The four no-shows are now part of the lengthening list of those ordered deported "in absentia."

(Enhanced for Netscape)

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