Capping a week of aggressive rhetoric on immigration and border security, President Donald Trump on Friday evening ordered his administration to double down on ending the so-called “catch and release” of deportable immigrants.
In a memo for the heads of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, Trump ordered his officials to prepare a series of reports on further measures they can take to crack down on illegal immigration.
The memo did not prescribe any policy steps to take and largely reiterated demands from executive orders Trump signed in the early days of his presidency, but the move highlights his frustration over Congress’ inability to pass any major immigration or border security legislation and lawmakers’ continued refusal to fund his border wall outside of a few dozen miles.
In a statement to go along with the memo, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the document orders “important steps” to be taken.
“The safety and security of the American people is the President’s highest priority, and he will keep his promise to protect our country and to ensure that our laws are respected,” Sanders said, accusing Democrats of blocking further action although the President has struggled to find even enough Republicans in Congress to pass much of his agenda.
“Catch and release” refers to the fact that many undocumented immigrants end up living in the US for years because of a deeply backlogged immigration court system. When deportable immigrants are arrested, some go into mandatory detention but some must be released.
The US has the capacity to detain only about 40,000 immigrants at a time, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and congressional appropriators, and in this administration and the last, many immigrants deemed not to be flight risks and not dangerous have been released on their own recognizance or with monitoring technology.
In addition, court orders and laws require that children, alone or with family, can be held in detention only up to three weeks, and many must be released in a matter of days. Individuals who pass the initial screening to pursue asylum claims are also often released.
Critics’ concern about the release of such immigrants is that their court dates are often years away, and some qualify for work permits in the meantime. As they build lives in the US awaiting rulings on their fate, the critics say, they “exploit” the system and sometimes don’t show up for court. According to Justice Department data, 25% of asylum decisions were given in absentia in 2016, meaning those immigrants were not in court. That number in 2015 and 2016 was higher than in previous years.
The memo orders a report in 45 days that lays out what the agencies have done and could do to address factors that contribute to the release of immigrants from detention, including building more detention facilities, speeding up and tightening asylum policies, defaulting to detaining immigrants rather than releasing them and exploring the use of military facilities and other types of existing structures for detention.
It orders a report In 75 days on what new powers might be needed and a report in 60 days on what has been done to pressure countries that do not readily take back their citizens who have been deported from the United States.