Between 40 percent and 55 percent of illegal immigrants from Mexico who get released with orders to appear at a court hearing never show, a high-ranking immigration official admitted Thursday.

“This is pretty much a mockery of the system,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions.

Ronald Vitiello, acting chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, testified at a Senate hearing that Mexicans apprehended at the border — if they clear a criminal background check — are given an option of voluntarily returning to their country. If they opt against that, they have a right to an administrative hearing.

But many never show for those hearings and already are living in the United States, relatively free from the possibility that they will be tracked down. Thomas Homan, executive associate director of enforcement and removal for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, offered a 40-55 percent estimate in response to a question from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

“This is pretty much a mockery of the system,” said Sessions, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest. “That erodes the deterrence impact of the enforcement strategy.”

Brandon Judd, a border agent and representative of the American Federation of Government Employees, agreed. He testified that it is part of a “catch-and-release” policy that encourages further illegal immigration.

“Unfortunately, those NTAs [notices to appear] are completely and totally ignored,” he said.

Judd said that this does not even include a large number of people whom border patrol agents are required under current policy to let go even without a notice to appear in court. That policy applies to anyone who claims to have resided in the United States before Jan. 1, 2014.

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“We just walk them out and say, ‘goodbye,'” he said.

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Overall, Judd estimated, 80 percent of those apprehended at the border qualify for catch and release.

Sessions demanded to know why deportations are declining, even as ICE resources are increasing. In fiscal year 2012, with a budget for detention and deportation of $2.75 billion, the agency removed 409,000 illegal immigrants. In fiscal year 2015, despite an a budget increase to $3.43 billion, deportations dipped to 235,000.

During the same period, the number of holds of illegal immigrants in local jails and prisons requested by ICE declined 66 percent, from 282,000 to 96,000.

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“Tell me, again, what can we do, and do you have any ideas to get more productivity for the taxpayers who’ve given you given you a big pay raise?” Sessions asked.

Homan blamed a combination of policy changes at the state and federal levels. He noted that President Obama has excluded certain categories of immigrants from enforcement actions in order to prioritize illegal immigrants who commit other crimes. In addition, “sanctuary cities” and other non-cooperating jurisdictions have complicated federal immigration enforcement.

California passed the Trust Act in 2012, which limits local cooperation with federal authorities. Homan said it has greatly impacted deportations, since such a large number of illegal immigrants live in the state.

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Finally, he said, court rulings prohibit the agency from detaining illegal immigrants for longer than six months.

“The framework has changed,” he said. “Our job is a lot tougher than it was in FY 12.”

Sessions, however, pressed Homan. He pointed out that sanctuary cities date back much longer than 2012.

“Isn’t it true that ICE officers get calls every day from police officers and departments all over America that are not sanctuary cities, and you’re not responding to them because they don’t meet the guidelines or the priorities established by the president?” he asked.

Homan acknowledged that is the case.

Sessions said the declining deportations are not the result of fewer illegal immigrants.

“You have them to deport, but you have policies that tell you not to deport whole categories of people that are here unlawfully. Isn’t that true?” he said.

Responded Homan: “That’s a factor, yes, sir.”

Homan also noted that a policy change that took effect in January 2015 limits deportation efforts only to people who have been convicted of crimes. He said the share of deported immigrants that were criminals was 59 percent last year, an agency record. And 91 percent apprehended in the interior of the country had criminal convictions.

“I agree the criminals should go first,” he said.

Sessions criticized the approach, arguing that illegal immigrants who merely have been charged with crimes could legally be deported, saving taxpayers money to jail them pending trial and protecting the public from crimes they might commit if released on bail.

“What that means is, you’re not arresting anyone but convicted people,” he said.

Homan said his officers are following the directives they have received.

“They may not like the mission, but they’re executing it perfectly,” he sad.

Sessions agreed on that point.

“Your officers are trying to do their job, I agree,” he said. “They’re being frustrated by the policies that don’t work.”

Homan said the Priority Enforcement Program, which limits enforcement to high-priority illegal immigrants, has helped improve cooperation with state and local authorities. But, he acknowledged, “I’m frustrated with some large jurisdictions that just don’t want to cooperate with us.”