The rendezvous was in front of Shoe City. In the frosty darkness, four Homeland Security officers strapped bulletproof vests over their sweat shirts and fingered their pistols. It was 5 a.m., and the voice of their supervisor, Raymond Smith, sliced through the silence in the parking lot of Prince George’s Plaza.
“Take a look at this,” said Smith, a beefy D.C. native with a shaved head. He passed around a folder on their first target, a 25-year-old West African. The immigrant had been ordered deported in 2003 but never left the United States. Now, he was living in a Hyattsville apartment—or so Smith hoped.
“We’ve got a 50-50 chance of getting him,” he said.
Smith is part of an effort to track down 370,000 “absconders”—illegal immigrants who have disobeyed orders to leave the country. As part of a get-tough approach after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Homeland Security Department has deployed 18 fugitive squads to catch these immigrants, including a team in Maryland.
A morning with Smith’s team shows how difficult it is to find absconders, part of a rising tide of illegal immigration. The fugitive squads capture 35 people a day across the country, on average. But each day, another 70 immigrants are ordered deported and fail to comply, officials say. So the absconder population grows ever larger.
“We’re still in the midst of the battle in terms of control,” acknowledged Victor Cerda, a top official at the department’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The immigrant sought by Smith’s team was typical of the problem. Etienne Kabert, a short, small-boned man from Ivory Coast, had applied for political asylum, officials said. He was turned down, and an immigration appeals court sent him a letter in July 2003 ordering him to leave the country.
He never did.
Like Kabert, most immigrants aren’t jailed while their cases are heard. About one-third vanish before their cases are decided, Cerda said. Of the remainder, about 85 percent of those who get deportation notices don’t show up for final processing, he said.
Suddenly, Smith’s gaze focused on a slender man with a cocoa complexion alighting from a bus. The man spotted the agents emerging from the apartment building and abruptly started walking around it. But one of the officers was waiting.
“We got him!” yelled the officer.
It was Etienne Kabert. He meekly led the officers to his apartment, where he had ID cards with various names and birth dates, as well as a French passport he had acquired years ago.
Smith had gotten his man. One down, 8,500 absconders to go in Maryland.