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Foreign Repatriation Refusals Cost US Millions of Dollars

Chinese President Hu Jintao is meeting with President Bush at the White House today (Thursday) and the repatriation of thousands of illegal Chinese immigrants in the United States is likely among the topics the two leaders discuss.

China is just one of dozens of countries which, at various times, have either refused or stalled the repatriation of its nationals who have entered the U.S. illegally. VOA's Jim Bertel reports these delays can be quite costly for the U.S.

The pictures are riveting: people risking everything to sneak illegally into the United States. Their desperation forces many to take great risks -- stowaways from China were recently apprehended in a cargo container at the Port of Seattle.

Mike Milne is with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "It shows the lengths that people will go to, to come to and get to the United States."

They come from all corners of the world: Latin America, East Asia, Africa, The Middle East; all hoping to find a better life in the U.S.

More than a million illegal immigrants, most from Mexico, are caught and returned to their native countries each year. But thousands more are in a state of limbo, detained by the United States but refused repatriation by their homelands.

"It is a policy of a lot of governments around the world not to be easy when the advanced, industrial world wants to simply, as they see it, return or dump back some of their nationals who have been found to be in our country illegally," says Demetri Papademetriou, the president of the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank that studies the movement of people around the world.

He says countries' generally refuse to take back their nationals because they want something in return. "And what they are typically looking for in return is some extra visas for them to be able to legalize some of that flow."

China has been the focus of much of the Bush administration's attention on this issue. Thirty-nine thousand illegal Chinese immigrants are currently in the United States. Nearly 700 are being held in federal detention centers. At a cost of $95 U.S. a day, any delay is very expensive.

John Torres is the Director of the Detention and Removal Program at the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement Office. He says, "So if one person is delayed 10 days that's about a thousand dollars. And in some instances we may not be able to remove someone for six months."

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff raised the issue during talks earlier this month in Beijing. Torres says the negotiations produced "an initial framework" for China to accept more of their nationals back into the country.

"The Chinese government has agreed to accept an initial charter flight in May or June of 300 to 350 of their nationals and we think that is a good first step," Torres said.

While the United States is making progress in developing readmission agreements with several countries, experts say the list of nations refusing to take their people back is growing. And with limited detention facilities the United States is left with a "Hobson's Choice” -- a choice without a viable alternative: continue to incur the expense of incarcerating these illegal immigrants or release them into the general U.S. population.