Illegal immigrants are still being caught and then quickly released after sneaking across the U.S.-Mexico border, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told lawmakers on Wednesday, saying it would likely take action by Congress to shut down the loopholes the migrants are using.
Known colloquially as catch-and-release, the practice of nabbing, processing then quickly releasing illegal immigrants has long been a black eye for border security.
The illegal immigrants caught then released are supposed to show up later to be deported, but instead disappear into the shadows along with the estimated 11 million other illegal immigrants.
“It’s not the policy, it’s just the reality,” Mr. Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee, confirming that catch-and-release is still going on despite GOP promises to end the practice.
“They’re being released into the community and they’re not coming back for their hearings,” he said.
Mr. Sessions said illegal immigrants have figured out how to exploit U.S. law by arriving in the country, then making claims of asylum that trigger a long process.
During that time, they are allowed to remain in the U.S. and are even granted work permits, entitling them to driver’s licenses, Social Security numbers and some taxpayer benefits — all of which help them cement their place in the U.S.
Mr. Sessions said he’s adding more immigration judges to process cases faster, and said he’s looking at whether there are other executive actions that can help. But he said Congress could solve the situation by changing the law.
President Trump suggested some of those changes in his 70-point immigration enforcement plan he released earlier this month, and which he said he wants to be part of any debate over legal status for illegal immigrant Dreamers.
Immigrant-rights activists have balked at those ideas, saying the president’s proposal would close down critical protections for deserving refugees and asylum seekers.
Mr. Sessions also defended his decision last month to declare the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals deportation amnesty for illegal immigrant “Dreamers” indefensible in court.
The attorney general said the problem with the program wasn’t so much the 2012 policy crafted by Homeland Security, but rather the way it was carried out, with nearly every illegal immigrant who applied being approved for the two-year work permit and stay of deportation.
“A DACA program might be legal if it was done on an individualized basis. But the Department of Justice can’t just wipe out whole sections of the American law and say we’re not going to enforce it,” Mr. Sessions said.
More than 92 percent of DACA applicants were approved for the program, according to the latest statistics.
Sen. Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat and a longtime defender of illegal immigrant Dreamers, said Mr. Sessions contradicted the advice of the Office of Legal Counsel, which serves as the main legal voice of the government.
The OLC issued an opinion in 2014 saying it thought DACA and a later amnesty, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans that applied to a broader set of illegal immigrants, would be legal.
“Check your website — that opinion is still on your website — that DACA is lawful,” Mr. Durbin said.
But courts have since ruled DAPA illegal and questioned the operations of DACA, and Mr. Sessions said those rulings helped undercut the amnesty, leading him to conclude he couldn’t defend it.
Mr. Sessions said he doubted he could reveal his communications with the OLC ahead of his decision, nor would he say whether he spoke with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose threat to sue to stop DACA helped forced last month’s phaseout decision.
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