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On the trail of 400,000 fugitives

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  • On the trail of 400,000 fugitives
    By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
    NEW YORK On the 12th floor of an East Harlem housing project, Ray Simonse and his four-member squad of federal immigration agents thought they had their man cornered.

    An Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent arrests Vernon Miller, a fugitive immigrant, in New York.
    Photos by Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY
    For days, the agents had tracked Juan Pablo Goris, 40, a native of the Dominican Republic who was in the USA illegally. The trail led to an apartment where Goris was believed to be staying with friends. The agents gathered there early one morning last month, figuring it would be the best time to catch him. But no one was home, so the frustrated agents moved to their next target. (Related link: Photo gallery)

    It was a familiar scenario for the immigration agents, who are among about 80 fugitive hunters nationwide assigned by the Department of Homeland Security to find an estimated 400,000 illegal immigrants who disobeyed orders to leave the USA or who failed to appear at immigration hearings. In an unprecedented effort inspired by post-9/11 concerns about national security, DHS is using 18 teams of immigration agents to hunt for these fugitives and add some bite to immigration laws that for decades have rarely been enforced.

    The teams from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of DHS, have been successful, to an extent. Along with border agents, the teams arrested 7,239 people from March through September last year, a 112% increase from that period in 2003. But because the list of fugitives continues to grow, U.S. agents have made modest progress in cutting the overall number, says Victor Cerda, a top ICE official.

    Meanwhile, teams such as Simonse's painstakingly track fugitives, one by one, focusing mostly on those with criminal records. "There is enough here to keep me busy for the rest of my career," Simonse says, referring to the roughly 20,000 fugitive immigrants in the New York City area. "We add more (fugitives) day by day."

    Huge challenges

    The continuing increase in the number of fugitives, the difficulty in tracking them and the relatively few agents assigned to do so offer a hint of the enormous challenges the government faces as it seeks to clamp down on illegal immigration.

    Fugitive immigrants account for only a small fraction of the total number of illegal immigrants in the USA, which the 2000 Census estimated at 8 million. Most of them are unknown to the government. To boost the crackdown on just the known fugitives, Congress recently approved plans for DHS to hire 10,000 more border agents and 4,000 more Customs and immigration agents over the next five years.

    But even if more fugitives are caught as a result, U.S. officials face other hurdles in reducing the number of illegals here:

    The immigration detention system has only 19,440 beds, and it's full. An anti-terrorism bill Congress passed last month called for expanding the system, but it's unclear how money will be allocated for that and how quickly space can be added. "We need to have (more) bed space or our efforts are fruitless," ICE spokesman Russ Knocke says.

    Much of the information about immigrant fugitives in government databases is out of date, to the point that Cerda and other U.S. immigration officials acknowledge that they aren't sure whether their estimate of 400,000 fugitives nationwide is accurate.

    During the past year, government audits have suggested that as many as 100,000 of the names on the fugitives list could be deleted. Thousands of the fugitives apparently have died, fled the USA or gained legal status since their names went on the list, Cerda says.

    Agents have begun to purge the rolls of incorrect names only recently, Cerda says, so other agents almost certainly have wasted time chasing ghosts. "The information just wasn't being kept up to date," Cerda says. "Nobody was tracking this stuff."

    The flow of illegal immigrants into the USA has not abated, and despite significantly tighter security along the borders with Mexico and Canada, it remains easy for illegal immigrants to enter this country through remote areas.

    'Catch and release'

    Thousands on the fugitives list gave themselves up to Border Patrol agents shortly after crossing into the USA from Mexico to take advantage of a controversial "catch and release" policy that U.S. immigration officials have used because of crowded detention facilities along the Southwest border.

    The policy allows a captured illegal immigrant to remain free in this country if the person agrees to appear at a court hearing, which often is scheduled in a U.S. city that was the immigrant's destination. But about 86% of those who agree to show up in court do not, and they become fugitives.

    Knowing they're unlikely to be jailed, thousands of immigrants have surrendered to Border Patrol agents, then have been allowed to continue their journey into America, court summonses in hand.

    "It's so bad that some (illegals) are taking taxis from the border to the Border Patrol offices to turn themselves in," says T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents about 10,000 Border Patrol agents and staff members. "The immigration system is broken to the point where you just want to throw up your hands."

    The federal commission that examined the 9/11 attacks suggested that terrorists might take advantage of gaping holes in U.S. border security to enter this country. That notion is helping drive efforts to identify and deport illegal immigrants.

    Among other things, the commission found that at least two of the 19 foreigners who were suicide hijackers on 9/11 got into this country illegally, with fraudulent passports.

    The hijackings put a spotlight on lax enforcement of immigration laws and prompted the government's hardened attitude toward illegals. That included the crackdown on immigrant fugitives, whose cases typically had received scant attention from the government during the past several decades.

    DHS officials acknowledge that a more aggressive approach to fugitives before 9/11 probably would not have exposed the hijackers. Those on the fugitives list often have made themselves known by applying for asylum or by committing crimes; the hijackers had done neither.

    Michael Garcia, DHS' assistant secretary in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also says that although the fugitive teams were created in 2003 in response to the 9/11 attacks, his agency has found no evidence that terrorists have entered the USA by exploiting security gaps along the borders. "I can't point to a case where we have found a (terrorist) group," Garcia says. "I don't mean to downplay the risk. It's a vulnerability. We can't say the risk isn't there."

    Run to ground

    It was still dark one morning last month when Simonse's team arrived at a small apartment complex in the Bronx in search of Vernon Miller, a native of Jamaica who had been ordered deported in 2002 after being convicted on marijuana charges. Roused from sleep, he answered the door and politely invited agents inside. Miller, a mechanic, was handcuffed and led away from the apartment where he has lived for more than a decade.

    Miller was to be locked up until Jamaica's government approved his return there. A thin smile broke across his face when he was asked about coming back to the USA. "I really don't know," he said.

    Twelve days after agents first showed up at the East Harlem apartment, they returned there and finally caught Goris, whose lengthy criminal record includes convictions for assault and weapons violations.

    "I can't get to every one," Simonse says. "But as we get sufficient, the numbers (of fugitives) will be reduced."
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