The Gordian knot of our nation’s immigration crisis involves few policy disasters more burdensome than “catch-and-release.” While many Americans have heard the phrase, most do not understand why it is such a problem.
Catch-and-release has become an umbrella term for a host of policies and practices that allow for a porous border and let untold numbers of illegal aliens live in the country with little fear of deportation. It specifically refers to the scenario in which law enforcement officers apprehend someone here illegally. Instead of detaining the person until his case may be heard before an immigration judge, he is instead released into the country until he’s notified of a hearing date.
A fishing term, catch-and-release came into political practice during the administration of George W. Bush. Michael Chertoff, Bush’s homeland security chief, had pledged in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee to “return every single illegal entrant—no exceptions.” While Chertoff pushed for more detentions, catch-and-release made a comeback under Barack Obama and was not threatened again until Donald Trump targeted it as one of the centerpieces of this immigration enforcement push.
While a policy like catch-and-release may work in a country the size of Liechtenstein, it has been an unmitigated disaster in America. According to government data, Customs and Border Protection (CPB) had 1,956,159 encounters with foreign nationals in the country illegally in fiscal year 2021. In March, halfway through the current fiscal year, the number had already topped 1.2 million. Under the Biden Administration’s absentee landlord border policy, we will surely set a new record for encounters this year.
Numbers that large easily overwhelm our insufficient detention facilities, and our hopelessly backlogged immigration court system. Consequently, those who break our immigration laws can enjoy the benefits of living in the United States for years before ever hearing about their cases. Years after the original encounter, an alien may have moved several times within the United States. Finding hundreds of thousands of people who don’t want to be found can take more years, if our government is actually looking for them at all.
Even if they are found, what is the incentive for them to show up for a hearing when they already have the result they wanted? Data from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and members of Congress shows that less than 25 percent of those apprehended at the border and released show up for their immigration hearings. Combine that with a 2018 poll which found that more than 750 million people worldwide would migrate to the United States if they could. In what way is catch-and-release even a remotely sustainable policy?
Efforts to upend catch-and-release, unsurprisingly, are met with ferocious resistance from those whose visions of a borderless world have led them to think the policy is a great idea. These activists appear blind to the gradual erosion of society that catch-and-release brings.
In 2011, U.S. Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) introduced a bill that effectively would have reversed the Supreme Court decision in Zadvydas v. Davis, which found that the plenary power doctrine does not authorize the indefinite detention of those here illegally, whom no other country will accept, under order of deportation. The bill never became law, and the chaos has only grown.
On the bright side, however, there are efforts currently underway to undo this noxious policy. Florida is suing the Biden Administration, challenging the release of illegal aliens into the country instead of detaining and removing them. While citing a brief submitted by the Immigration Reform Law Institute, the federal district court denied the administration’s motion to dismiss, permitting the case against mass catch-and-release to proceed.
If the bathroom is flooding, any homeowner will tell you the obvious first step is to turn off the water. By allowing catch-and-release, we are trying to clean up a flood as the water is still flowing. The time for social engineering experiments is over. We are in desperate need of immigration policies that prioritize the best interests of our country and its citizens. Catch-and-release is the opposite of that, and it needs to go.