Among many federal agents along the U.S. border with Canada, Washington's warnings about the need for vigilance against another terror attack ring hollow.
Border agents tell NBC News that since April, they've been forced to release most illegal immigrants back onto American streets within hours of catching them — even some who are criminals or from countries known to produce terrorists.
"Shortly after 9/11, we were locking up everybody. There was no exception," says recently retired U.S. Border Agent Peter Kush. "We seem to be going back to the same old, same old song and dance."
One Vermont sheriff says border patrol detainees in his jail have dropped 75 percent since April. "I was told kind of unofficially by telephone that the monies had run out," says Franklin County Sheriff Robert Norris.
Indeed, documents obtained by NBC News show that over the last month, illegal immigrants were repeatedly "released due to lack of detention funds."
Along the New York and Vermont borders alone, at least 11 released were from so-called countries of special interest, including Pakistan and Morocco. T.J. Bonner of the Border Patrol Agents Association, who represents border patrol agents nationwide, says, "It's simply mind-numbing to the agents. We catch people who could possibly be terrorists and we're being told, 'Gee, we're out of money, we have to let them go.'"
Other documents obtained by NBC News reveal:
- York, Pa.: "Due to worsening budget problems," this Pennsylvania detention facility no longer takes all criminal ... aliens," generally only violent ones.
- Miami: A memo re-titled "Let 'em All Go" by an unhappy agent, says "due to budgetary constraints," only criminals who completed sentences after October 1998 must be detained.
A Homeland Security official says the agency is asking Congress for more money, but insists agents aren't releasing anyone who might be dangerous, whether a criminal or possible terrorist.
"We are not compromising national security," says Victor Cerda of the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "Agents look at each case individually and they will make determinations, again, based on the intelligence that's out there. Is this person a threat to our country?"
But agents say they only have a few hours for basic checks of terror watch lists and criminal records. They warn that without detentions and longer investigations, terrorists who use aliases or don't have criminal records could well be home-free.