Federal authorities are beginning an extensive search for illegal immigrants who evade U.S. deportation orders.
Alfonso Chardy, herald.com (Miami), Mar. 14
Federal immigration officials, in a significant strategy shift that is sending shudders through immigrant communities, are for the first time aggressively tracking down foreign nationals who have been ordered deported but who have managed to evade capture.
Under a plan dubbed Endgame, teams of federal agents are being deployed to hunt down more than 400,000 illegal immigrants so they can be expelled from the United States.
Since the program began eight months ago, more than 7,000 people have been detained across the country, including 427 in Florida. Federal officials have set an ambitious goal: to deport all ”absconders,” as immigration agents refer to them, within 10 years.
But the stepped-up enforcement has raised alarms among immigration lawyers and activists.
They say that faulty information in old immigration files, backlogs in processing applications, misplaced records, wrong addresses and misspelled names have led agents to arrest people who were not even aware that final deportation orders had been issued against them and others who had become legal residents.
Indeed, a recent Justice Department internal investigation skewered the immigration service for shoddy record-keeping.
“We found name discrepancies, . . . nationality discrepancies, and case-file number discrepancies,” investigators from the inspector general’s office at the Justice Department wrote in their report.
Endgame marks a major departure from past practices when foreign nationals who absconded and had no criminal conviction were either left alone or detained only when — by chance — they came in contact with authorities.
`CHANGE IN ATTITUDE’
“Absconders were a low priority,” said a senior federal immigration official familiar with the program.
But the laissez-faire approach ended after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led to a variety of new measures designed to tighten immigration controls.
“’It’s a change in attitude to show that we as a government are serious about enforcing immigration laws on the books,” the official said. “Otherwise, people would continue to abuse the system.”
But Endgame has angered advocates for immigrants. They say the dragnet is ensnaring innocent people or hard-working people who are simply trying to support themselves and their families.
“Immigration had previously stated that their priority . . . was criminal aliens and those that posed a threat to the national security,” said Miami immigration attorney Jorge Rivera. “It is unfortunate that Immigration is targeting families . . . that do not have any prior arrests and therefore do not pose any threat or danger to the community. Many of these families have significant ties to the United States and would suffer extreme hardship if they were deported.”
In one prominent case, first reported in The New York Times last month, a retired Russian astrophysicist, Professor Anatoly Bogudlov, was nabbed at Kennedy Airport in February as he returned from Moscow.
The 65-year-old Bogudlov, a permanent U.S. resident, had requested asylum in 1992 but did not appear for his 1999 hearing.
The case was referred to an immigration judge, who ordered him deported in absentia.
Bogudlov was not aware of the order because he had not received notification about his case. The notification was sent to the wrong address. Bogudlov was released from custody shortly before the newspaper report appeared but still faces deportation.
A Peruvian couple from Hollywood, the Sandivars, were deported Feb. 6 after agents tracked down Lourdes Sandivar and arrested her for evading a final order of deportation.
Hours later, agents arrested her husband, José, as he rushed home after learning that his wife had been detained. He also had a pending deportation order.
Lourdes Sandivar, in a telephone interview from Lima, said she thought the order was in error because her husband had a valid U.S. work permit.
The Sandivars have two U.S.-born children, 5 and 6. One is mentally disabled. But having U.S.-born children does not provide legal guarantees to people with final deportation orders, so the entire family was sent to Peru.
AGENCY IS SUED
In December, the National Council of La Raza and other civil and immigrant rights groups sued the Justice Department for adding the names of absconders to the National Crime Information Center database.
Many police officers routinely access the database when running background checks on suspects and on people stopped for traffic violations.
Activists say that before deporting people, federal immigration officials should, on a case-by-case basis, make sure that there are no compelling reasons, such as U.S.-born children, to allow them to remain in the United States.
AFTER SEPT. 11
The addition of absconders to the national criminal database was one of the first steps taken to toughen immigration laws after Sept. 11, 2001.
At the time, however, immigration officials said they were not taking active measures to track them down — other than to encourage local law-enforcement agencies to check the database in the course of routine police work.
But immigration officials shifted tactics last year when the Justice Department’s inspector general criticized the office of detention and removal for failing to deport large numbers of immigrants who had final deportation orders.
Central to Endgame are so-called ”fugitive teams” of immigration detectives responsible for locating and arresting absconders. Already, several such teams have been deployed around Florida to find the thousands of fugitives believed to be living in the state, said Kim Boulia, acting deputy director of the field office for detention and removal operations in Miami.