By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008
Federal authorities yesterday urged illegal immigrants living in the United States in violation of deportation orders to turn themselves in under a pilot program planned for five U.S. cities next month.
The self-deportation program, called "Operation Scheduled Departure," gives immigrants a chance to avoid the risk of being caught and jailed, have up to 90 days to put their affairs in order and in some cases leave with some family members, said James T. Hayes Jr., acting director of detention and removal operations with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It runs Aug. 5 to 26 in San Diego and Santa Ana, Calif.; Phoenix; Chicago; and Charlotte.
The program is limited to illegal immigrants with no criminal record who pose no threat to their community or the country. Hayes estimated as many as 500,000 of the 572,000 illegal immigrants recorded as living in the country in violation of court orders -- deemed "fugitive aliens" -- could be eligible.
Immigrant advocates called the plan a gimmick that is unlikely to reduce the estimated U.S. illegal immigrant population of 12 million people. While federal raids at workplaces and neighborhoods have spread fear, there is little incentive for illegal immigrants to go into "permanent exile," or to check in with ICE first if they wish to leave, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
Noorani called the offer a "harebrained scheme," adding: "This is nothing more than a modern-day Trail of Tears."
Hayes said the program was inspired by critics who accuse ICE of using punitive tactics and say that fugitives would surrender themselves.
"This is a great opportunity for those advocacy and faith-based organizations who have asked us to look at other ways to conduct fugitive operations to really step up to the table and bring their clients to us and work with us to schedule their departure," Hayes said.