Raymond and Verla Witzel have watched their west-side neighborhood in Salt Lake City deteriorate over the years, evolving from a nice place to rear a family to a place where drive-by shootings happen.

Recently, they watched congressmen, police, federal officials and a Salt Lake County commissioner talk about a problem that has hit too close for home to them: the illegal immigrant population.They were among a handful of residents who attended an immigration subcommittee hearing organized by Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, and held at the Chapman Branch Library.

The Witzels, who bought their home nearly 33 years ago, say they wanted to hear some answers on what authorities were doing to combat a problem that has invaded their neighborhood.

"It's really changed in the last few years," Verla Witzel said. "We used to have a nice, cohesive neighborhood."

The Witzels say they would like that neighborhood back but don't know how authorities plan to retrieve the streets from the incessant illegal drug trade and rampant violent crime.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron Kennard said the county needs an INS agent at the jail to more efficiently process the hundreds of illegal immigrants arrested each year. The county, he says, also needs a holding facility so his jail population isn't overburdened with the alarming number of illegal immigrants arrested by area police.

Kennard's figures were disheartening for folks in the crowd.

As many as 80 percent of illegal immigrants booked into the Salt Lake County Jail are released early under the federal consent release directive that puts caps on jailhouse populations.

Kennard said illegal immigrants are often freed because they are arrested for drug offenses, which aren't considered as big a threat to public safety as crimes involving weapons against people.

The releases are frustrating, he said, because they happen prior to prosecution in the case, meaning criminal immigrants are slipping out of jail without punishment.

"With no jail beds, the chances of them being locked up and put out of business are very slim. And they know that."

The message in the illegal immigrant population, Kennard says, is that there is very little punishment for dealing drugs.

Salt Lake County Commissioner Mary Callaghan's statistics were just as grim. Both she and Kennard said illegal immigrants constitute 80 percent of the felony drug arrests in Salt Lake City and about 53 percent of the felony drug arrests in the county.

In reply, INS regional director Mark Reed spoke of a beefed-up "interior enforcement" program aimed at battling the illegal immigrant population in states like Utah that aren't on the border but nevertheless becoming swamped with immigrant populations.

He talked of an increased number of immigrant apprehensions, an increased number of deportations and new methods being embraced to quell the problem.

He dismissed, however, Kennard's plea for an agent at the jail.

"If we were to put an agent in every jail in this state, we'd have to have 200 additional people."

At Monday's hearing, Cannon was joined by Congressman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who is chairman of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims.

Smith criticized the agency.

"It would be nice if your administration converted words into action," he said.