Government Invites Illegal Immigrants To Turn Themselves In, But Offer Draws Few Takers

Government invites illegal immigrants to turn themselves in, but offer draws few takers

By Amy Taxin
The Associated Press, August 5, 2008

Santa Ana, CA (AP) — Wanted: Illegal immigrants with clean records who have ignored court orders to leave the country. Immigration officials are standing by to help you leave the country. No jail. No joke.

That invitation drew hardly any takers Tuesday on the first day of a new federal 'self-deportation' program that offered 457,000 eligible illegal immigrants the chance to turn themselves in, get their affairs in order and leave the country without being detained.

The tepid response only reinforced doubts about an idea that has drawn criticism and even ridicule from both sides of the immigration debate.

'You would have to be crazy who would want to turn themselves in?' said Angel Martinez, a construction worker who waited Tuesday outside ICE's Charlotte, N.C., office while his son visited a friend detained on immigration violations.

'Nobody wants to go back,' said Martinez, who came to the U.S. illegally 15 years ago from Mexico City. 'We risked everything to get here for a reason.'

The offer from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement runs through Aug. 22 in Santa Ana, San Diego, Chicago, Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C., as part of the agency's new Scheduled Departure Program. It could be expanded nationwide if successful.

Agents were waiting to speed people through the process which grants participants up to three months to get their affairs in order and provides the comfort of knowing their homes won't be raided.

But by Tuesday afternoon, only one person in Phoenix took the offer, according to an ICE official who spoke on condition of anonymity because not all the numbers are in. Officials in the other cities said they had no takers by mid-afternoon.

'Are people actually doing it? I really find it hard to believe,' said Wendy Chavez, 22, of Anaheim, who took her mother for a citizenship test.

An ICE advertising campaign being launched Wednesday targets so-called immigration 'fugitives,' illegal immigrants who got caught and ignored a judge's order to leave but avoided other trouble with the law.

Of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, about 572,000 are fugitives, although about 20 percent of them are ineligible to participate because they have criminal histories, officials said.

By turning themselves in, immigrants can also avoid spending weeks, months or possibly years in detention centers as their cases are processed.

The program 'gives you time to make arrangements and take care of your personal matters,' the ad reads. 'It is a way for you to plan your return home.'

When ICE agents arrive at a home to arrest a fugitive, they often find relatives and friends who are in the U.S. illegally but haven't been ordered home. Those people may get deported too.

Robin Baker, who heads ICE's detention and removal operations in San Diego, said participants in the program get up to 90 days to put their affairs in order, possibly longer, after turning themselves in. They are asked to check in with U.S. officials after leaving the country to let authorities know they kept their promise.

'We understand the impact it has on them when we knock on their doors early in the morning and take them out of their homes,' he said. 'This allows them to leave on their own terms.'

And fugitives who aren't from Mexico are likely to get another benefit: A one-way plane ticket home if they can't afford the trip, just like immigrants arrested in raids. For Mexicans who are deported, ICE will consider paying bus fare to the border.

The program could also ease pressure on immigration courts and detention centers, which have been crowded by the Bush administration's immigration crackdown at homes, factories and offices.

Juan Laguna, a Santa Ana immigration attorney, said some of his clients might be interested.

'They don't want their children to go through the trauma of being arrested in the morning,' he said outside ICE offices Tuesday.

Some may sign up for the program to improve their standing with the government in case they ever seek to return legally, Laguna said. The ad says surrendering to authorities will be 'noted by ICE as a factor in your immigration records.'

One anti-illegal immigration group welcomed the effort. Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said taxpayers would save money if even only a few surrender because ICE won't have to look for them.

The ad campaign targets ethnic media in the five cities, starting with the Prensa Hispana newspaper in Phoenix. In Chicago, ICE planned ads in La Raza, the city's largest Spanish-language weekly, and on Spanish- and Polish-language radio.

ICE officials hesitated to predict turnout but Robert Alfieri, supervisory deportations officer in Charlotte, had a message for critics: 'For anyone to say no one will do it, that's absolutely wrong.'


Self-deportation program criticized as `a fantasy';
Authorities have launched a new strategy to return undocumented immigrants back to their home countries: self-deportation.

By Laura Isensee
The Miami Herald (FL), August 6, 2008

Federal authorities debuted a new strategy this week for tracking down undocumented immigrants: Turn yourself in and deport yourself.

Dubbed ''Operation Scheduled Departure,'' the pilot program was launched Tuesday in five cities nationwide: Santa Ana and San Diego in California; Phoenix; Chicago, and Charlotte, N.C.

It runs through Aug. 22 and could expand to other cities and states, including Florida, ''depending on its success,'' said Nicole Navas, spokeswoman with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

`It's Absurd'

Local immigration advocates ridiculed the pilot program. The consensus: It's going to be a hard sell.

'If they think people are going to leave before being detained, go to the office and say `Here I am,' it's absurd,'' said Nora Sandigo, executive director of Miami-based American Fraternity.

''It's a fantasy very far from reality,'' Sandigo said.

The program is part of the federal government's latest effort to combat illegal immigration following last year's failed effort in Congress to reform the immigration system.

Currently, an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, including between 800,000 and 950,000 in Florida, live in the United States, according to a 2005 study by Pew Hispanic Center. Through the initiative, only those immigrants with final orders of deportation can turn themselves in to authorities. Some may arrange for family members to go with them.

Those who qualify will not be sent to a detention center to await final deportation. Instead, they will be placed under supervision and may be required to wear an electronic monitoring device.

Ineligible for the program are those with criminal records and those who have remained undetected by federal authorities. They would be detained through the regular deportation process.

Immigration advocates argue that the current anti-immigrant sentiment along with the economic downturn are already causing many undocumented immigrants to return home on their own.

''I get a sense of real frustration on their part,'' said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. “They're feeling very unwelcome and add to that a tanking economy which is making it more difficult for them to earn a decent living.''

The self-deportation program offers no long-term solution, said Jose Lagos, head of Honduran Unity, a Miami-based nonprofit. ''The solution is comprehensive immigration reform,'' he said.

Voluntary departure is something local anti-illegal immigration group Citizens of Dade United has lobbied for several years, said Enos Schera, vice president of the group.

''It's a good idea because they'll be leaving on their own,'' Schera said.

Federal officials say they are confident they are on the right course. ICE Director Julie Myers said eligible immigrants now have the opportunity to leave the country with, in some cases, the government paying the travel costs.

Myers has gone to Spanish-language airwaves to promote the program. Appearing on Univisin, she told anchor Jorge Ramos: “The program basically gives an opportunity to those seeking an organized way to self-deport.''

The federal government tried a similar strategy in 2004 when it set up daily flights from Tucson, Ariz., to Mexico City or Guadalajara for Mexican nationals caught along the U.S. border. From there, immigrants were bused to their hometowns. The $13 million voluntary repatriation program was meant to lessen deaths in the desert and restrict smuggling rings.

Whether undocumented immigrants buy into the program remains to be seen, but some like Armando Lacayo, who lives in South Florida, wouldn't rule it out if deemed eligible.

''Loneliness, anxiety, years away from your family and home — it overwhelms you,'' said Lacayo, 41, who left behind his wife and two sons in his native Nicaragua. He plans to join them soon.

''I prefer to leave on my own,'' Lacayo said.


Self-deportation program launched in Chicago
By Sophia Tareen
The Associated Press, August 5, 2008