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.
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.
Nearby, Elisabeth Soto, 54, of Seven Springs, N.C., explained how two decades of lax enforcement have made self-deportation unattractive for illegal immigrants who have set down roots in this country, such as her oldest daughter, 32, whose case was separated from her family's when she got married.
Soto said her daughter works for pork processor Smithfield Foods, is married to a U.S. citizen and has three children who are citizens by birth. However, she was misled by an adviser to apply for asylum, even though she was not eligible, and now faces deportation after having lived in the United States since 1987.
"We don't have any family in Mexico. If she goes, where is she going to live? What is she going to do?" asked Soto, a grandmother of seven and an 18-year employee of Butterball.
The nation's backlog of immigrant fugitives nearly doubled between 2001 and 2006, before dipping to 572,000 mainly because of an administrative effort to reconcile government records of people who had died, left the country or obtained legal status. Each year, ICE estimated in 2004, 40,000 illegal immigrants join the list of fugitives, ignoring orders to leave the country.
In response, Congress has boosted spending on fugitive arrest operations 20-fold since 2003, and the number of apprehensions each year has climbed from 1,900 to about 30,000. However, even though ICE has increased the number of its fugitive enforcement teams from eight to 75, arrests have fallen far short of the goal of 1,000 per team, making it hard for ICE to keep up with the growing backlog.
Critical lawmakers note that ICE's stated priorities are to first remove fugitives who pose a national security threat, then those with criminal records and then those without criminal records. But deportations of noncriminals grew 91 percent from 2003 to 2007, while those of criminals climbed 16 percent.
ICE agents acknowledge that the pool of criminal fugitives whose court appearances are recent enough to yield good clues about their whereabouts is thinning, making it harder to find fugitives.
Though it has spent more than $1 billion to add detention beds, ICE also faces limits on how many fugitives it can lock up, making initiatives such as Scheduled Departure -- that don't require jail beds -- more attractive.
ICE officials say that the program will cost only $100,000 or so -- the price of advertisements -- and that agents waiting for takers will continue working on other investigations.
They also questioned the motives of enforcement critics who do not urge illegal immigrants to turn themselves in under Scheduled Departure, while criticizing ICE for enforcement raids.
"We are going to find out if people are opposed to methods of enforcement or if they are against any enforcement of the law," said James T. Hayes Jr., acting director of detention and removal operations for ICE.
Charles Kuck, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, called such rhetoric a public relations ploy. Still, he understands, he said, why ICE is conducting raids that anger people and adopting an ineffective policy such as Scheduled Departure to deflect criticism.
"The administration is so desperate to force Congress to act that it will try anything," Kuck said.
Lydersen reported from Chicago.