SAN DIEGO—Thirteen government agents pile into unmarked SUVs and dark sedans in the basement garage of downtown’s federal building. Their assignment: Crash the homes of 16 illegal immigrants and deport them.
It is an increasingly common scene across the nation. The government wants to catch the nearly half-million immigrants who have ducked deportation orders or are targets for removal because they were convicted of a crime.
The size and complexity of the mission is staggering. Even as the government pours millions into enforcement, each year the number of new fugitives far exceeds the number of immigrants removed.
One spring evening in San Diego shows why.
The agents are eager to start knocking on doors: Each wears a bulletproof vest with “POLICE” on the back or a blue Department of Homeland Security jacket. But only four are full-time agents with Fugitive Operations, founded in 2002 to track these immigrants—the other nine either work days processing deportation orders or are Border Patrol agents on overtime.
The teams have five hours to finish the job.
By night’s end, they have apprehended six of their 16 targets, with a seventh picked up the nextmorning. Given that the teams fan out just several times a week, it’s barely a dent in the region’s backlog of 5,000 cases.
Orders from Washington are to pursue violent criminals, a fraction of all the fugitives, but the San Diego agents catch who they can. Four of the seven had convictions unrelated to immigration, including battery, theft, sex with a minor, and DUI.
Alvina Martinez, a 54-year- old homemaker whose husband works in construction, had no such record. Martinez was deported in 1998 for being in the United States illegally; a second offense would make her a felon. Agents talked their way into her small, single-story home and deported her to Mexico the next day.
San Diego has one of 18 Fugitive Operations teams, and with more than 550 apprehensions ranks near the top of the 22 cities where Homeland Security agents have caught fugitives since October. Others include Los Angeles, Boston, Miami and Chicago.
In all, Homeland Security wants to round up 460,000 fugitive immigrants, about 80,000 of whom have records unrelated to immigration.
The Associated Press asked in May for a database with details about these fugitives, but Homeland Security hasn’t ruled on that Freedom of Information Act request.
Authorities hope to eliminate their backlog by 2009.
Federal agents will have detained nearly 10,000 fugitives during the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. It’s impossible to know how many of those deported have already returned to the United States. During the same period, an estimated 40,000 new fugitives were added—so the list has actually grown longer.
The explanation is straightforward. Homeland Security has only about 19,500 detention beds nationwide. Although local jails hold some of the overflow, overwhelmed immigration courts often release immigrants who are challenging their deportation and trust they’ll show up for court.
Some do. And many who are captured and threatened with deportation voluntarily return home. But agents acknowledge it’snot surprising many skip hearings that will probably lead to removal.
In April, the department expanded a pilot program to jail immigrants while their cases wind their way through the courts. That effort, begun in Connecticut and expanded to Atlanta and Denver, has drawn criticism from immigration lawyers who say it punishes noncriminals who are simply exercising their legal rights.
Authorities also are experimenting with new ways to track people before they disappear. In June, Homeland Security began using electronic ankle bracelets in eight cities, among them Denver, San Francisco and Portland, Ore. The department also launched a limited program under which immigrants out on bail or parole check in by telephone, with voice-recognition software verifying they are who they say they are and that they’re calling from home.
When immigrants do go on the lam, Fugitive Operations agents must pursue “this population that has been out there flouting the law,” said Victor Cerda, who oversees detention and removals at Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division.
Agents spend hours building dossiers: staking out homes to determine when best to come knocking, interviewing apartment managers, checking credit reports and loan applications.
Some agents rely on ruses to enter people’s homes, knowing they’re unlikely to be let in if they explain their true intentions. It’s called “knock and talk.”
Homeland Security’s $4 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2005 requests $69 million for Fugitive Operations, a fourfold increase from $17 million this fiscal year. The department wants to expand the number of squads, each typically with five members, from 18 to 48 nationwide. Homeland Security officials said that, as a matter of policy, they won’t reveal where those squads are stationed.
Agents used to track the freshest cases first, figuring they would be easiest to find, said Doris Meissner, former President Clinton’s top immigration official.
“I think it is, by and large, a losing battle to go out and try to find people,” said Meissner, now senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
The top priority has become getting felons—not those with simple immigration-law violations.
Homeland Security officials say felons represent 47 percent of the fugitives removed this year, short of their goal of 70 percent. About 11 percent of apprehended fugitives have committed sex offenses or other violent crimes, and about 15 percent were drug offenders.
Some critics say the government relies too much on enforcement instead of addressing the fundamental reasons immigrants come. In some other cases, the critics say, the government is stoking anti-immigrant sentiment.
“By trying to characterize undocumented immigrants as criminals, it makes it easier to scapegoat them,” said Gail Pendleton, associate director of an immigration project at the National Lawyers Guild.
Jaime Garcia Zuniga is the kind of criminal Homeland Security wants to deport. The 23-year-old Mexican, who has been convicted of fighting in public and having sex with a minor, was perhaps the biggest catch for the San Diego agents that evening.
When agents were chatting with someone who answered the door, Garcia removed a screen and sneaked out the window of his first-floor apartment.
Agents cornered Garcia in an alley, where he surrendered.
The agents returned to their cars, still catching their breath—one down, more than 400,000 to go.