Nearly 4,000 illegal immigrants apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol at the southwest border over a three-year period were allowed to return to their home countries despite having past criminal convictions and connections to criminal networks.

The statistic is included in a new government audit exposing shortcomings in the way Border Patrol agents deal with illegal immigrants caught trying to cross the border into the United States.

Border Patrol agents use the Consequence Delivery System, or CDS, to classify apprehended aliens using seven criminal and noncriminal categories. They then decide which of eight consequences the apprehended aliens should receive, based on how effective the consequences are in preventing the individuals from trying again to illegally enter the United States. The CDS system plays a major role in the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to combat transnational criminal organizations and drug smuggling across the U.S. border.

However, Border Patrol agents incorrectly classified roughly 15,000 criminal alien apprehensions between fiscal years 2013-15, according to a Government Accountability Office report issued this month. Twenty-four percent of these aliens, or 3,717, were allowed to voluntarily return to their countries of origin. Voluntary return is rated as the least effective and efficient of the consequences. More severe consequences include criminal prosecution.

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