Americans have been stunned by report of the chaotic movement of tens of thousands of Central Americans across the Rio Grande. Instead of law and policies that discourage illegal immigration by arresting and deporting unauthorized border crossers, the public has learned of a system that encourages the massive influx by providing illegal crossers with permission to join family members or friends across the country. The system has turned the Border Patrol, long regarded as a formidable border barrier, into a Welcome Wagon.
The story is bizarre. But it is not unprecedented. As Congress surveys the chaotic border landscape and considers a legislative fix, it could learn a great deal from a similar situation that developed in the same part of the Texas border just nine years ago.
I was a reporter at the time, and the border was a major part of my beat. Here is the top of the story I wrote in June of 2005. The dateline was McAllen, Texas, the border town that is the focal point the Central American influx:
In the silvery-blue light of dusk, 20 Brazilians glided across the Rio Grande in rubber rafts propelled by Mexican smugglers who leaned forward and breast-stroked through the gentle current.
Once on the U.S. side, the Brazilians scrambled ashore and started looking for the Border Patrol. Their quick and well-rehearsed surrender was part of a growing trend that is demoralizing the Border Patrol and beckoning a rising number of illegal immigrants from countries beyond Mexico.
"We used to chase them; now they're chasing us," Border Patrol Agent Gus Balderas said as he frisked the Brazilians and collected their passports late last month.
What happened next explains the odd reversal. The group was detained overnight and given a court summons that allowed them to stay in the United States pending an immigration hearing. Then a Border Patrol agent drove them to the McAllen bus station, where they continued their journey into America.
The formal term for the court summons is a "notice to appear." Border Patrol agents have another name for it. They call it a "notice to disappear." Of the 8,908 notices to appear that the immigration court in nearby Harlingen issued last year to non-Mexicans, 8,767 failed to show up for their hearings, according to statistics compiled by the Justice Department's Executive Office of Immigration Review. That is a no-show rate of 98 percent.
Three days after that story appeared on the front page of the San Diego Union Tribune, Sen. Jeff Sessions read that passage at a hearing on border security. In a tone of astonishment and dismay, Sessions said to Border Patrol chief David Aguilar, "Tell me how this can continue, or how this has occurred."
It was a difficult time for Aguilar. But a few months later he was telling the story of how the influx – fueled like the current crisis by smugglers who marketed the loophole to guarantee customers' admission to the U.S. – had been shut down. The Border Patrol ended the chaos, returning relative calm as the normal clandestine smuggling returned, sneaking people across the border to dodge the Border Patrol and rendezvous with drivers waiting to take them north.
The solution was a multi-step program called Expedited Removal, or ER. It solved the problems that had forced the Border Patrol to release the illegal migrants. It expanded detention space, cleared backlogs in the immigration court system, and sped up the tedious process of getting the home countries to issue travel documents and accept the flights that brought their countrymen home.
The Border Patrol had launched ER in the Laredo and Tucson sectors in September of 2004. With prompting from impatient members of Congress, it took the program to Rio Grande Valley in July 2005, the month after the hearing. It named the effort "Operation Texas Hold 'Em," after the poker game of the same name.
Two months later Aguilar was telling another congressional hearing that "during the first 30 days of implementation of ER, the number of Brazilians dropped by 54 percent" in the Rio Grande Valley Sector. "At the 60 day mark, it dropped by over 90 percent."
In a written response to questions from senators, Aguilar said that instead of releasing illegal immigrants with a "permiso" ("permit" in Spanish, the nickname migrants had given to the order to appear in immigration court), federal authorities led by ICE had partnered to detain 100 percent of the Brazilians in the Rio Grande Valley and put them into ER proceedings.
In view of the large number of Hondurans now pouring across the border in the influx from Central America, it is interesting to note that Expedited Removal was also applied to Hondurans and people from other OTM – Other Than Mexican – countries who were streaming north. An important element of the success of ER was cooperation from the Honduran government, which today is assertive in demanding that the U.S. respect the rights that it extended to unaccompanied illegal immigrant children in 2008 legislation.
Another important ingredient in the program was cooperation from Mexico. At the request of the State Department, Mexico suspended a tourism-friendly program that had allowed Brazilians to come to Mexico without a visa. The restored visa requirement helped suppress the market for the smugglers who had marketed their services in Brazil.
Aguilar drew this lesson from the crisis: "ER sends a strong message that an illegal entrant will not be released into the country but detained and removed." It is a message that Republican members of Congress want to make loud and clear. Democrats, meanwhile, are insisting on strict observance to due process and a full hearing for all those who seek to remain in the United States.