By N.C. Aizenman and Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 5, 2007
At 2:10 a.m., a fleet of dark SUVs surged from the garage beneath a federal building onto the deserted streets of Fairfax County, carrying a raiding party of flak-jacketed immigration agents.
Their quarry: illegal immigrants who have ignored and evaded deportation orders. Called "fugitive aliens" or "alien absconders," they have nearly doubled in number since 2001, now totaling more than 636,000.
The Fairfax operation was part of a stepped-up national effort that has increased the number of fugitive arrests from 1,560 in 2003 to a projected 16,000 this year, U.S. immigration officials said.
As Congress ponders a sweeping overhaul of immigration laws, the hard mathematics of eliminating the backlog of cases has become central to the debate.
Conservatives say the White House has a credibility gap when it asks them to support a temporary worker program and a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants in return for a promised crackdown on the worst offenders.
The failure to remove "low-hanging fruit" such as fugitives "may reflect the fact that there's a complete neglect for enforcement, or that even in egregious cases, they just can't get their act together," said Steven A. Camarota, spokesman for the Center on Immigration Studies, a group that advocates less immigration.
Immigrant advocates and some former federal authorities counter that the growing backlog of fugitives -- who make up 5 percent of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants -- demonstrates the futility of relying on enforcement alone to stop illegal immigration.
"The absconder population is exhibit number one," said Victor X. Cerda, former chief of staff and general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). "We haven't been able to handle the 600,000-plus who went through the legal system. What's going to lead us to believe we're going to handle the 12 million?"
Federal officials became alarmed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when they discovered they could not account for 314,000 immigrants who had been ordered deported, including 5,046 from countries where al-Qaeda was present.
Since then, spending on fugitive operations has grown from $9 million to $183 million a year -- about $10,000 per arrest, according to a recent report by the Homeland Security inspector general.
But the backlog continued to grow as immigration courts increased their workloads, issuing far more deportation orders.
Meanwhile, because of a shortage of detention space, many immigrants from nations other than Mexico who were caught sneaking across the border were freed in the United States to await their court dates -- a practice dubbed "catch and release." The vast majority never showed up for court, leading judges to order their deportation in absentia.
Those factors, combined with a lack of resources for ICE's fugitive enforcement, "contributed to the inability of . . . apprehensions to keep pace with the increase in the backlog of fugitive aliens, not to mention reduce it," Homeland Security Inspector General Richard L. Skinner reported in March.
Skinner concluded, "It is highly improbable that it will be eliminated in the near future."
However, John P. Torres, ICE's director of detention and removal operations, said the agency has made major improvements in recent months.
"Within a year, we'll see a big drop. . . . We're attacking on all fronts," Torres said, stopping short of a promise to eliminate the backlog.
The catch-and-release practice was terminated in September, he noted, and under a new initiative, ICE since July has purged its fugitive rolls of 27,000 people who died, left the country or obtained legal status.
Finally, ICE has boosted the number of fugitive teams from 18 in 2005 to a projected 75 this year, each with a goal of 1,000 arrests a year.
The challenge facing those agents was apparent during the early morning raids by the Fairfax team, which goes out three or four times a week.
The morning's first target was a middle-age Pakistani man who agents said was wanted in connection with a slaying and bank robbery in his home country. Through surveillance, team members had determined that he would probably be working at a Shell gas station on Lee Highway in Arlington County.
As the motorcade approached the gas station, the team leader, a tall man with a linebacker's physique, got on the radio and ordered all vehicles to stop a short distance away so that an agent in plainclothes could drive up and determine whether the target was there.
A few minutes later, the team leader's voice came back on the radio. "Okay, he's not working there now. All units to the apartment."
The team converged on a three-story brick building a few blocks away. But once again, it came up empty: Only the man's roommates were home.
"All units, the target is at work, apparently at a different Shell station," an agent announced over the radio. "We're trying to determine where now."
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.