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Unusual methods helped ICE break deportation record, e-mails and interviews show
ICE spokesman Hale said the agency started the program early because of available funds and a timely agreement between the United States and Mexico. He acknowledged that some of the immigrants removed through the program were caught or detained hundreds of miles from Arizona.
"Select individuals from west Texas were offered an opportunity to volunteer for safe return to their place of origin in the interior of Mexico," Hale said.
He also confirmed that Mexican nationals detained near Seattle - possibly as many as 500 immigrants, according to one local officer - were also included on the flights.
A year-end scramble
The surge to break the deportation record in the final weeks of the fiscal year consumed the agency, said a high-ranking immigration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
"They had everyone burning the candle at both ends to reach 390,000," the official said. "They were basically saying anything you can do to increase the overall removal number, that's what you should do - over everything else."
lIn the Seattle area, immigration officers were instructed to give the voluntary return option to immigrants who did not face mandatory detention and didn't have attorneys.
lIn the Atlanta area, ICE officers were told to persuade immigrants who had already asked to see an immigration judge to instead voluntarily leave the country.
lIn Chicago, officers were told to stop releasing eligible immigrants and monitoring them with electronic ankle bracelets, which might spur more to accept voluntary removals, according to a Sept. 22 e-mail.
"Due to our increase in funding for detention for the remainder of the fiscal year, do not release anyone on an order of recognizance at this time," James McPeek, an assistant field office director in Chicago, wrote in the e-mail to employees. "Another option is to offer a VR [voluntary return] and keep in custody - this will increase our removal numbers for the fiscal year."
An ICE employee in Louisiana, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, estimated that over a two-week period at least 100 to 150 Mexican nationals, some of whom had multiple drunken driving convictions, had their court cases reassigned as voluntary return, which was not common practice. ICE agents elsewhere reported similar numbers.
Several ICE employees said, however, that once the fiscal year ended, their offices reverted to infrequently offering the return option. In the Pacific Northwest, some employees received an e-mail stating just that.
"Effective immediately: do not offer V/Rs [voluntary returns] to aliens who have been convicted of or are pending DUI," ICE supervisor Elizabeth Godfrey wrote Oct. 4.
ICE's goal for 2011 is to remove 404,000 immigrants.
Andrew Becker is a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting. He can be reached at email@example.com. CIR is a nonprofit news organization based in Berkeley, Calif., dedicated to producing investigative journalism. Its stories have appeared frequently in The Washington Post and other newspapers.