China is refusing to take back an estimated 39,000 citizens who have been denied immigration to the US and have clogged detention centers at federal expense, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.
Chertoff said on Tuesday that China last year readmitted 800 people. But that made only a small dent in what he described as a backlog of thousands illegally in the US.
Doing the sums
"The math is pretty easy -- at that rate, we wind up with increasing numbers of migrants who, if we're going to detain them, we're going to have to house at enormous expense," Chertoff said.
He added: "We can't be in the position any longer where we are paying the burden and bearing the burden for countries that won't cooperate with us and take their own citizens back."
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately return a call for comment.
Currently, 687 Chinese are being held in federal detention facilities, at a daily rate of US$95 each, while some 38,000 have been released on bond or under a monitoring program, such as wearing an electronic surveillance bracelet, the Homeland Security Department said later on Tuesday.
Illegal immigrants can be held for 180 days before they are released. In all, the government has spent an estimated US$667 million in detention costs on the Chinese, the department said.
Chertoff also said Homeland Security would open detention facilities in the next few weeks to house entire families of illegal immigrants who hope to bring their children along in order to avoid jail time.
"It'll be humane, but we're not going to let people get away with this," he said.
Chertoff's remarks come as the Homeland Security Department aims to end its "catch and release" immigration policy by Oct. 1. After that date, all illegal immigrants will be held in US detention centers until they can be returned to their nation of citizenry.
Over the last five years, Homeland Security has deported more than 2,580 Chinese nationals, departmental data show.
Though other nations also are refusing to take back citizens who have been denied US immigration, Chertoff refused to name them on Tuesday, noting that the number of stranded citizens from China far outpaces those from other counties.
Chertoff visits China, Japan and Singapore at end of this month.
He said financial decisions and a cumbersome process may contribute to China's reluctance to take back its citizens, but also: "I think sometimes maybe it's a low priority."
"But they've got to understand it's a high priority for us," he said.