The rendezvous was in front of Shoe City. In the frosty darkness, four Homeland Security officers strapped bulletproof vests over their sweat shirts and fingered their pistols. It was 5 a.m., and the voice of their supervisor, Raymond Smith, sliced through the silence in the parking lot of Prince George's Plaza.
"Take a look at this," said Smith, a beefy D.C. native with a shaved head. He passed around a folder on their first target, a 25-year-old West African. The immigrant had been ordered deported in 2003 but never left the United States. Now, he was living in a Hyattsville apartment -- or so Smith hoped.
Deportation officer Jamie Colomb, left, goes over information with supervisory officer Raymond Smith before a predawn raid in Hyattsville.
(Photos Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
"We've got a 50-50 chance of getting him," he said.
Smith is part of an effort to track down 370,000 "absconders" -- illegal immigrants who have disobeyed orders to leave the country. As part of a get-tough approach after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Homeland Security Department has deployed 18 fugitive squads to catch these immigrants, including a team in Maryland.
A morning with Smith's team shows how difficult it is to find absconders, part of a rising tide of illegal immigration. The fugitive squads capture 35 people a day across the country, on average. But each day, another 70 immigrants are ordered deported and fail to comply, officials say. So the absconder population grows ever larger.
"We're still in the midst of the battle in terms of control," acknowledged Victor Cerda, a top official at the department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The immigrant sought by Smith's team was typical of the problem. Etienne Kabert, a short, small-boned man from Ivory Coast, had applied for political asylum, officials said. He was turned down, and an immigration appeals court sent him a letter in July 2003 ordering him to leave the country.
He never did.
Like Kabert, most immigrants aren't jailed while their cases are heard. About one-third vanish before their cases are decided, Cerda said. Of the remainder, about 85 percent of those who get deportation notices don't show up for final processing, he said.
For years, the absconders knew that immigration agents were too busy to turn up at their doors.
That is changing, as was evident as Smith's team cruised down Queens Chapel Road on a recent Tuesday. Under a moonlit sky, Smith watched his officers file into the Hamilton Manor Apartments. A light snapped on in an upstairs window. But it was Kabert's roommate. The man they sought was working an overnight shift, the officers relayed to their supervisor.
Smith gazed impassively at the building.
"We'll be back," he declared.
The absconder program began as the immigration system was facing a volley of criticism after the Sept. 11 attacks. What better place to start fixing the system, officials reasoned, than the absconders? Unlike most of the country's 8 million or more illegal immigrants, the absconders were known to the government -- because they'd been detained briefly on immigration charges or had applied for legal status. And they'd had their day in court.