WASHINGTON - Citing concerns about terrorists crossing the nation's borders, the Department of Homeland Security announced yesterday that it planned to give Border Patrol agents sweeping new powers to deport illegal immigrants from the frontiers with Mexico and Canada without providing them the opportunity to make their case before an immigration judge.
The move, which will take effect this month, represents a broad expansion of the authority of the thousands of law enforcement agents who patrol the nation's borders. Until now, Border Patrol agents typically handed over undocumented immigrants to the custody of the immigration courts, where judges determined whether they should be deported or remain in the United States.
Homeland security officials described the deportation process in the immigration courts - which hear asylum claims and other appeals to remain in the country - as sluggish and cumbersome, saying illegal immigrants often wait more than a year before being deported while straining the capacity of detention centers and draining critical resources.
Under the new system, immigrants will typically be deported within eight days, officials said.
The Immigration Reform Act of 1996 allowed the immigration service the authority to deport certain groups of illegal immigrants without judicial oversight, but until now the agency permitted only officials at airports and seaports to do so.
The new rule will apply to illegal immigrants caught within 100 miles of the Mexican and Canadian borders who have spent 14 days or less within the United States. Officials said the border agents would not focus on deporting Mexicans and Canadians, who will still have their cases heard in immigration courts for the most part. The agents will concentrate on immigrants from other countries.
Officials said the new plan will help deter illegal immigration, speed deportations and address border security concerns.
"There is a concern that as we tighten the security of our ports of entry through our biometric checks that there will be more opportunity or more effort made by terrorists to enter our country through our vast land borders," said Asa Hutchinson, the undersecretary for border security at the Department of Homeland Security.
"We recognize that we have to secure those, and that's the president's first principle of immigration reform," Hutchinson said.
The decision was hailed by officials who have long complained that the nation's porous borders represent a serious threat to national security. But it prompted a flurry of criticism from others, who fear that the system lacks safeguards to ensure that people fleeing persecution, U.S. citizens lacking paperwork or other travelers with legitimate grounds to be in the United States would not be wrongly deported.
Hutchinson said that border agents would be trained in asylum law and that immigrants who demonstrated a credible fear of persecution would be sent to immigration judges.
Homeland security officials said the training would last for several days and that agents would quickly begin their new duties in Tucson, Ariz., and Laredo, Texas. Advocates for immigrants said they fear mistakes will be made when hastily trained border agents decide who should be deported and who should not. Complaints about improper deportations have been reported at some airports and seaports.
"We're very concerned that we may see the mistaken deportations of refugees, citizens and other legitimate visitors," said Eleanor Acer of Human Rights First. "For refugees, it could be a life or death sentence."
The officials also announced plans to allow the roughly 7 million Mexicans who carry border crossing cards - which allow them to visit the United States for three days consecutively - to enter for up to 30 days at a time. Hutchinson said the two announcements were part of a two-pronged strategy.
"We want to send a clear message that those individuals who follow legal immigration rules will benefit, while those who choose to break our nation's immigration laws will be promptly removed from the U.S.," Hutchinson said.