Immigration Questions: What is Catch and Release?

From time to time we hear new phrases or terminology in the news or we see it online, and since it is specialized terminology, we don’t entirely understand what it means. This happens a lot in any field, but especially in law and policy about immigration. One that we heard a lot of during the campaign was “catch and release.” And it is becoming increasingly more important to talk about this concept given current debates and arguments about family detention of people crossing the southern border. 

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What is catch and release?

In short, there is no legal definition, since this is a phrase made up by pundits and politicians who oppose the practice. In short, it is the practice of releasing individuals on their own recognizance once they have been awarded a hearing before an immigration judge. Most often, what this means, is that someone crosses into the United States, surrenders to the Customs and Border Patrol, and asks to apply for asylum. This is a right of anyone present in the United States, it doesn’t matter how you got here. The person is detained, processed, and given a credible fear interview. Here, trained interviewers try to determine if the person’s fear is credible, or if they are simply saying they fear returning to their country so that they aren’t deported. Under previous administrations, once an individual or family unit passed their credible fear interview, meaning the trained interviewer believes they truly are fearful of returning home, they would be released into the United States to await their hearing before a judge.

Didn’t these individuals simply disappear into society?

No. First of all, they weren’t simply free to go wherever they wanted. They were often released to where they had family or friends and enrolled in an alternatives to detention program. Some participants in these programs wore ankle monitors, some were required to check in with ICE officials every couple of months, and others had to report in to ICE over the telephone. By ICE’s own statistics, 99.8% of immigrants enrolled in alternatives to detention programs returned for their court hearing.

What happened at these court hearings?

At this point an immigrant has the right to argue their case before an immigration judge. Again, most of them are arguing cases of asylum. If they are lucky their case is being argued by an immigration attorney, but many immigrants cannot afford attorneys and they are not provided for them. In immigration law, asylum is what is called discretionary, meaning it is up to the individual judges to grant asylum. This leads to wide disparity in the number of approved cases by jurisdiction. This means that while some judges have a denial rate of over 90%, other judges approve over 70% of their cases. This doesn’t mean that they are hearing better or worse cases, it means that some judges are simply more willing to grant asylum. An individuals chances of being granted asylum depend greatly on which judge in which court hears your case.

What happens if their relief is denied?

If asylum is denied there are a few other forms of a relief an immigrant can try to get, but it is nearly impossible. Once all avenues are exhausted, the immigrant is deported.


So as we can see, while people use the language of “catch and release” to make it sound as if we are simply releasing people to where they just disappear into society, nothing could be further from the truth. Once someone is released on their own recognizance, they have an extremely hard, uphill battle to be able to stay in the United States.

Much needs to be done to reform this system, attacking the process of releasing immigrants to await their court dates is not a helpful part of such reform.

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