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U.S. Targeting Immigrant 'Absconders'

Osmarbyn Hernandez of El Salvador, right, who lost his legal status after several DUI convictions, puts on his shoes.
Osmarbyn Hernandez of El Salvador, right, who lost his legal status after several DUI convictions, puts on his shoes. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

Finally, at 2:45 a.m. the team set off for the second Shell station, whooshing silently across darkened highways normally clogged with traffic.

This time, the plainclothes agent had good news to report.

Inside the station's convenience store, the Pakistani man frowned and shook his head sadly as agents handcuffed his hands behind his back.

The next six targets proved almost as time-consuming to track down. A Salvadoran man convicted of attempted grand larceny tried to bolt out the back door of his tiny brick house, only to be tackled by an ICE agent lying in wait outside. A woman who had shoplifting convictions dating to 1983 vanished from her elegant high-rise apartment.

By the time the team reached its final destination, a white Colonial with a new swing set in the front yard, it was starting to get light outside.

This time, the target was not a convicted felon but a Salvadoran couple with a young child who had spent several years trying to persuade the immigration courts to let them stay after they flew into the United States in 2002 without a visa.

"I don't understand. I never got an order of deportation," the husband, Alcides Mendez, 31, said in a later interview at the Fairfax detention facility.

His only consolation was that ICE agents allowed his wife to stay at home with their toddler and a second child recently born in Virginia.

"I felt I was succeeding," Mendez said, burying his face in his gray sweat shirt. "What am I going to do now?"

A few seats away, Jose Artica, 19, was also bemoaning his misfortune. The Salvadoran bricklayer, who sneaked into the United States illegally two years ago, hadn't been on ICE's fugitive list. But he was renting a room from his cousin, the fugitive convicted of attempted grand larceny, and was arrested when he couldn't produce legal papers.

Next to him, Osmarbyn Hernandez, 32, a Salvadoran who lost his legal status after several DUI convictions, tried to enlist the sympathy of one of the ICE agents.

"I've got a 9-year-old son here. I've got my wife here. Isn't there anything I can do to solve this?" he pleaded.

The agent sighed.

"In this country, there are laws. If you'd followed the laws, you wouldn't be in this situation," he replied.

Compared with some operations in which the team has spent hours without catching a single fugitive, the outing had been a success, members said. The long night's work had removed five more fugitives from the rolls.

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