Self-Deportation Has Few Takers

By Spencer S. Hsu and Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 10, 2008

CHARLOTTE -- With a fanfare of news conferences and Spanish-language television and newspaper ads, U.S. authorities last week started giving 457,000 illegal immigrants a chance to turn themselves in without the usual threat of arrest and detention.

Three accepted.

The cold reception given to the rollout of the three-week pilot self-deportation program, called Scheduled Departure, presents an apt metaphor for the state of relations between U.S. enforcement officials and immigrant advocates in the year since Congress killed President Bush's proposed overhaul.

Since lawmakers rejected Bush's plan to combine tougher enforcement with a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and more guest workers for industry, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have stepped up raids at workplaces, in neighborhoods and in homes. That has triggered a fierce backlash from immigrant advocates, labor and religious leaders, and Hispanic and civil rights groups, who say the Bush administration is coddling employers while brutalizing families and abusing immigrant communities.

Meanwhile, key members of Congress charge that the raids are shifting ICE's focus away from its stated priority of targeting illegal immigrants with criminal records. And even though its funding has grown, the agency is finding it more difficult to keep up its increasing pace of arrests of such illegal immigrants, having already snared those who are easy to apprehend and encountering limits in detention space.

These problems, immigration experts say, help explain why officials turned to Scheduled Departure -- despite little evidence that it will much reduce the nation's estimated illegal immigrant population of 12 million.

"Perhaps it's trying to make them [ICE] look more humane," said Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "It's not designed to work."

Scheduled Departure is aimed at illegal immigrants who are living here in violation of deportation orders -- people the government calls "fugitive aliens." Those with no criminal record and who pose no threat to national security or to the community may get as much as 90 days to put their affairs in order, avoid the risk of arrest or jail time, and, in some cases, leave with some family members.

About 457,000 of 570,000 fugitive aliens may qualify, ICE said, although the pilot is set to run only until Aug. 22 in Charlotte, Chicago, Phoenix, San Diego and Santa Ana, Calif.

As Raymond A. Simonse, the ICE Atlanta field office director who oversaw operations in Charlotte last week, put it, "We need to establish the integrity of the immigration system, and this is how we can do it."

Outside ICE offices in this Sun Belt city, however, the task was easier said than done.

"I don't think most of the people will take this chance," said Rafael, a 17-year-old illegal immigrant from Raleigh, N.C., who asked not to give his last name because he was arrested while driving without a license and may face deportation after he turns 18. The young carpet installer said that he came to the United States as an infant and that his girlfriend is expecting the couple's own baby soon. "I think people like living in this country," he said.

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