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What is "Catch and Release"?

Andrew Schultz

On Friday, the White House issued a presidential memorandum with the subject line: “Ending ‘Catch and Release’ at the Border of the United States and Directing Other Enhancements to Immigration Enforcement.” In it, President Trump says:

Within 45 days of the date of this memorandum, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, shall submit a report to the President detailing all measures that their respective departments have pursued or are pursuing to expeditiously end “catch and release” practices. 

He doesn’t actually end the practice as much as he asks Cabinet officials to come up with a plan, but what is “catch and release,” a phrase that shows up six times in the memorandum as if it were an official regulatory term? 

Actually, the term is an insult as it equates the humanitarian plight of undocumented immigrants trying to enter the United States with sport fishing, where fishermen catch the fish, weigh or measure it, then release it back into the water. The presidential memorandum uses the phrase to describe a process “whereby aliens are released in the United States shortly after their apprehension for violations of our immigration laws.”

It also represents America rejecting its long-time role as a country that helps those who need help as it in effect calls for the government to turn a cold shoulder to those seeking asylum. Currently, those caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization are detained and deported. In a 2014 study, the majority of those who fled Central America did so because they or people they know have been victims of crime. 

What Trump calls “catch and release” comes when the detainees request asylum because they fear for their lives or the lives of their families in the country that they fled. A hearing in an immigration court is required to determine the validity of the asylum request, and because of the backlog of cases waiting to go before the immigration courts—sometimes up to three years—the government may decide that the asylum seeker doesn’t pose a flight risk and rather than pay the cost of extended detention, release the seeker into the general population until time for his or her hearing. 

According to the Washington Post’s Salvador Rizzo, “Trump argues catch-and-release ‘loopholes’ are heavily exploited and open a back door to smugglers and bad actors,” but the smugglers and criminal gangs are the exact people most of those fleeing Central America are trying to escape. The levels of crime and violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua prompted the unprecedented number of unaccompanied children to make the journey across Mexico to seek asylum in the United States, and it continues to motivate asylum seekers of all ages. Still, the presidential memorandum assumes that asylum seekers are gang members or bring crime to America.

“More must be done to enforce our laws and to protect our country from the dangers of releasing detained aliens into our communities while their immigration claims are pending,” it reads. It also asks the Cabinet members to consider the physical properties under their control and evaluate which might serve as additional, makeshift detention facilities to house those awaiting court dates.

The memorandum, read in conjunction with the Department of Justice’s imposition of quotas for case clearance for immigration court judges, signals a desire on the part of the government to put speed and ease ahead of justice, and to deport immigrants as expeditiously as possible. 

The phrase “catch and release” cannot be attributed to the Trump Administration, though the president has done his part to make it part of the lexicon of immigration law. According to the Washington Post, the Bush Administration started to use the phrase after the rise in undocumented immigration during the first half of the 2000s overwhelmed the government’s ability to detain everybody caught entering the country without authorization. 

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained the presidential memorandum, saying, “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.” Many doubt that these measures will achieve this goal. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, they “will likely mean that who is in line for removal will be determined only by whom ICE can practically and easily apprehend (‘low hanging fruit’) and the discretion of individual ICE officers.”

At this point, we don’t know what regulations will finally take shape, but the cause for concern is real. The Trump Administration has done a poor job of advancing a legislative agenda, but it has been able to make changes that could have lasting impact through regulatory change.  


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