Local authorities are catching then releasing illegal aliens despite the nation’s increased terror alert status because there are too few regional U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services agents to pick them up.

While the so-called “catch-and-release” strategy isn’t a new practice for many local police departments, some of the most recent cases have been occurring despite the Department of Homeland Security boosting the nation’s terrorist threat level to orange, or “high,” and that has drawn criticism from immigration-reform advocates.

“Catch-and-release is actual [federal immigration] policy and refers to precisely that,” said John Keeley, director of communications for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “It’s problematic, particularly when one such released turns out to be an infamous sniper-in-training (Lee Boyd Malvo),” he said.

In one recent case, Pittsburgh police detained several illegal aliens who had taken a wrong turn and driven to a seat-belt checkpoint May 19, but released them after an hour or so when federal immigration officials declined to come pick them up, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported.

The paper said Police Chief Walter J. “Wally” Lyons said his department contacted the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, or BCIS, but were told federal officials weren’t interested unless any of the illegals had criminal records.

After a background check, police found none of the group – which included seven men and two women – had been arrested before. None of the group spoke English, said the paper.

In another case this week, the Associated Press reported cops in Columbus, Ohio, also routinely let illegals go if they’ve got no criminal record because, says Franklin County Sheriff Jim Karnes, the BCIS – formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service – refused to pay an overdue bill several years ago.

“That leaves us in a quandary,” said Columbus police Cmdr. Bill Mattei. “If we stop someone we know to be illegal, we’ve got no place to bring them.”

The most common practice among officers in Columbus is to simply let the illegals go, AP said.

Meanwhile, the Marietta (Ohio) Times reported that police there arrested two groups of illegal aliens April 29 and 30 for trying to obtain state identification cards. Prosecutors have sought counsel and advise on the cases from BCIS, but federal officials have not responded.

The paper said Bureau of Motor Vehicle personnel became suspicious when one of the men in that group presented a Social Security card that didn’t match a picture that came back from the bureau’s online database. When another group came in the next morning, police were notified immediately.

Prosecutors say they may drop misdemeanor and felony charges against six illegals if BCIS doesn’t respond, the paper reported.

“Basically, unless (immigration services) gets back to us and reports that these individuals have any serious criminal history, we will likely dismiss the cases against them,” said Assistant City Law Director Mark Marsh. “We’re all waiting to hear back from Immigration.”

Yet in 1999, the former Immigration and Naturalization Service said it was enhancing “cooperation with state and local law-enforcement agencies” by deploying “45 new Quick Response Teams (QRTs) in 11 states” and expanding “coverage of the INS Law Enforcement Support Center (LESC) to seven additional states.”

“The new enforcement positions complement INS’ interior enforcement strategy to reduce the illegal population in the United States by targeting the factors that contribute most to it,” said a March 30, 1999, INS statement. “The strategy focuses on removing criminal aliens, disrupting alien smuggling operations, minimizing document fraud, working with local authorities to prevent immigration-related crime in the community, and blocking employers’ access to illegal workers.”

The Department of Homeland Security raised the nation’s threat level to orange, or “high,” May 20 in response to intelligence indicating “that al-Qaida has entered an operational period worldwide” which “may include attacks in the United States.”

A spokesman for BCIS said the agency “would like to be able” to pick up all apprehended illegal aliens, but it often fails to pick up “small groups” from local police because it is short-handed.

“We’ve got less than 2,000 special agents to carry out our mission,” the official, who asked not to be identified, told WorldNetDaily. “It’s a matter of resources, and we don’t have them.”

There is also some institutional bias against federal immigration law. In some cases, entire cities, such as Seattle, have adopted local ordinances forbidding police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities.

But it was the cases where federal officials are called and don’t respond, especially during a state of heightened national alert, that drew criticism from immigration reform groups.

“It is true that local police departments across the country routinely ignore the immigration status of those they come across in the course of their duties, and we have seen, as in the case of at least one of the 9-11 hijackers, just how dangerous that can be,” said Craig Nelson, a spokesman for Friends of Immigration Law Enforcement.

“The problem is essentially that the Clintonites put into place so many barriers, and immigration enforcement has gotten such short shrift, that the feds don’t have the resources to respond to every local police capture of illegal aliens,” James R. Edwards Jr., an immigration analyst, told WorldNetDaily.

“You have one or two immigration-enforcement agents for an entire state in many places in the interior,” said Edwards, who just authored a backgrounder for the Center for Immigration Studies entitled, “Officer Needs Assistance.” “From the feds’ perspective, it’s not a good use of taxpayers’ money to have these trained, skilled personnel drop what they’re doing when a police department calls, drive two hours to take custody of a handful of illegal aliens of the run-of-the-mill sort, drive two hours back, then process them and start removal proceedings. They feel they have bigger fish to fry. But this definitely isn’t communicated to the local cops, who are trying to do their part in securing the homeland.”

Some immigration activists were against any effort to apprehend illegal aliens.

“If the feds diverted the time and resources they’re spending on harassing and spying on immigrants and Americans to good, old-fashioned police work focused on bringing criminals to justice, America would be a freer and safer country,” said Jacob G. Hornberger, president of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

Other experts also expressed sympathy for local officers.

“Local cops are between a rock and a hard place,” said Nelson. “If they let illegal aliens go, they are not honoring their sworn duty to enforce the law. But if they start arresting illegal aliens on immigration violations, their jails would soon be full to bursting, and no one would show up from the INS to take the aliens off their hands.”

David Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for Immigration Reform, said it was bad enough that immigration enforcement along the border was “a cat-and-mouse game” between Border Patrol agents and illegal aliens, but he said the country lacks a sufficient domestic internal enforcement mechanism.

“It’s up to the state and local governments to incarcerate them when they commit crimes, to provide them medical care, to educate their children and to incur all of the other social costs,” Ray said.

But, he said, the federal government could “catapult progress on illegal alien enforcement” by taking “a strong public stance” against illegal immigration “by stepping up interior enforcement” through workplace monitoring, denial of benefits and curbing use of foreign-issued “matricula consular” cards.

“I imagine the reluctance on the part of some local law enforcement to apprehend and detain illegals is partly due to the perception that immigration is a purely federal matter, that the immigration code is distinctly complex, which it is, and also that often there simply isn’t detention space in a lot of localities,” said Keeley. “But it’s worth mentioning that some local jurisdictions are keenly interested in helping out the feds, for national-security reasons: Alabama’s Department of Public Safety is spearheading one such cooperative program, and Florida is too.”

BCIS says the department is currently expanding.

“We’re working on expanding our capabilities to a 24-hour response,” the official told WorldNetDaily. He said with respect to Florida and Alabama, “we currently are working with [their] law-enforcement agencies on ‘delegation of authority,'” which he said means they will “have the same authority to arrest and detain aliens.”

The official said he couldn’t comment on whether the local police agencies or the state would be compensated with federal funding for their efforts. But, he said the success of the program is “acting like a force multiplier for us” and has been “very successful.”

Hornberger acknowledged that while some federal immigration officials are less than motivated, many are simply trying to perform a difficult task with minimal resources.

“[Those officers] in the enforcement side really do try to do their duty and are as frustrated that they don’t have the resources available to be more responsive to such calls from state and local police,” he said.

Related stories:

Feds caving in to illegals?

Dual citizenship for Mexicans?

Expert: Crack down on illegals inside U.S.

Document fraud imperils homeland

Forest service border areas unprotected

Local police little help to feds on illegal aliens

Arabic diary found near border

‘Arab terrorists’ crossing border

Congressman: Time to go high-tech to secure borders

Border killing points up security lack

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