Posted on May 3, 2005

Immigration Enforcement Tough Battle

Jim Morrill, Knight Ridder, Apr. 30

North Carolina has an estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants, including nearly 3,000 classified as fugitives by immigration authorities.

And the number of federal deportation officers?

One. His main job: Find and deport undocumented immigrants who have been ordered to leave the country. He has fewer than 10 people in the state, and a handful in South Carolina, who work for the Department of Homeland Security’s Detention and Removal Operations.

Another Homeland Security agency, the Office of Investigations, has about 50 special agents in North Carolina. But their duties are divided between immigration violations and customs cases such as drug smuggling and money laundering.

In other words, for an illegal population the combined size of Greensboro and Wilmington, N.C., the federal policing capacity is smaller than Monroe’s.

“It’s a mess,” said U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, a Charlotte Republican. “It’s bad, bad, bad. Probably the worst mixed-up agency we’ve got. It was bad before, but it’s worse now.” Most legal immigrants come to the United States with visas and, once here, get permanent resident status, or green cards. Illegal immigrants come with no documentation. Federal officials say about 1,600 illegal immigrants a year are detained in the Carolinas; most are deported.

Officials say they’re doing the best they can with what they have. But they acknowledge they’re overmatched.

“To deal with the burgeoning illegal immigrant population overall, we don’t have enough resources,” said Jeff Jordan, assistant special agent in charge of the Office of Investigations in Charlotte.

The resource problem isn’t unique to the Carolinas.

“Virtually every field office around the country does not have the appropriate number of people to address the challenge,” said John Mata, field director in the Atlanta office of Detention and Removal, who said he has approved two more positions for North Carolina, including a second deportation officer.

Nationwide, a million undocumented immigrants in some phase of immigration proceedings have been released into the general population, a top agency official told a Senate committee this month. Of those, 465,000 — such as the 3,000 in the Carolinas — were ordered deported. About 80,000 of those have criminal offenses in addition to immigration violations.