By Leslie Berestein, Staff Writer
2:00 a.m. January 18, 2009
ICE FUGITIVE OPERATIONS: BY THE NUMBERS
558,000: Estimated number of people on ICE's fugitive list
34,155: Number of arrests that fugitive teams made in fiscal 2008
25,936: People arrested in 2008 whose names were on the fugitive list
30,408: Number of arrests in 2007
18,324: People arrested in 2007 whose names were on the list
15,462: Number of arrests in 2006
10,109: People arrested in 2006 whose names were on the list
$226.5 million: ICE budget for fugitive operations in fiscal 2009
$121.9 million: Budget for fugitive operations in 2006
SOURCE: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
The hazy violet light of dawn is just appearing in the eastern sky one recent morning as a team of immigration agents steps quietly onto the front porch of a rickety wooden house in Escondido tucked next to a thrift shop.
Wearing vests and jackets labeled “police,” the agents knock on the screen door. A couple of minutes go by before a short, stocky man in a red tank top appears, his dark hair in disarray as if he had been roused from bed.
“Somos policía,” one of the agents begins in Spanish. “We're police. Do you mind if we come inside to talk to you?”
It is a scene that has become increasingly common in immigrant communities. Since 2003, a growing staff of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents has been charged with removing hundreds of thousands of people nationwide who have not complied with deportation orders.
ICE officials credit the policy with significantly reducing the nation's list of noncompliant deportees, whom the agency refers to as fugitives. But it has a particularly controversial component: Once inside a home, it's common for agents check the immigration status of others, sometimes even when the person they are seeking isn't there.
Out of the 80,025 arrests made by ICE fugitive teams in fiscal years 2006 through 2008, nearly one-third were people not on the list.
These detainees, until recently termed collateral arrests by ICE, have ranged from people who answered the door at an outdated address to a young man detained at a Linda Vista bus stop while a fugitive operation took place nearby.
The resulting appearance of randomness has prompted outrage from immigrant advocates and unease in immigrant neighborhoods, with nervous talk of redadas, or raids. Legal residents and U.S. citizens have also been asked for their status, adding to the controversy.
Officials argue that the agents who carry out fugitive operations are enforcing the law. Bystanders are approached in the hope of finding the person they are looking for, agents say, and if someone is suspected of being here illegally or deportable, his or her status is checked.
“If there are other violators, we arrest them,” said Rick Abend, a supervisory ICE agent who heads one of three fugitive operations teams in San Diego County. “But we are not going down the street seeing who we can pick up.”
The outcry from immigrant communities, however, has reached the highest levels of government. In a July speech at the National Council of La Raza convention in San Diego, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama criticized the operations, along with an increase in work-site raids: “The system isn't working . . . when communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing.”
Now, as Obama prepares to step into the White House, advocacy groups are hoping to make curtailing such operations a priority.
“The home raids are the dirty underbelly of the immigration enforcement system,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “It is a stunning affront to our nation's belief in due process and civil liberties, and to the sanctity of the home.”
The agents knocking on the door in Escondido were searching for Manuel Cruz Esteban, 28, from Guatemala who was ordered deported in June 2007. He had been found to be in the country illegally after an arrest for driving under the influence two years earlier.
ICE officials say they are most interested in people with criminal records. However, of the 25,936 people arrested last year on ICE's fugitive list, 5,652 had criminal offense records. All it takes is ignoring a deportation order – sometimes issued in absentia, after missing an immigration hearing – to land on the list.
Not long after the sleepy-looking occupant let the agents in, the home's other residents could be seen through the screen door. Several Latino men sat on a sofa, looking up nervously at the agents.
“They're getting status on the others,” Abend said.
Before long, Cruz was led outside in handcuffs, and no one else. Four of the home's six occupants, it turned out, were legal U.S. residents.
“They asked all of us for our papers,” one occupant said afterward.
The man, who had just had surgery, had some sort of pending immigration application, but not a green card, agents said. If it turned out he was deportable, they would return.
As the sun climbed, a caravan of four unmarked government SUVs and minivans continued on to other homes. At one apartment, a woman refused to answer the door. At another, an occupant had just moved in.
Part of the reason for the wide net is that in spite of efforts to update addresses, ICE agents are frequently seeking renters, and some deportation orders date back several years.
The percentage of people arrested who were not on the list dropped from 40 percent in 2007 to 24 percent in 2008.
“We are spending a lot of time doing the necessary background investigative work so we can find these folks the first time, versus going out over and over again,” said Rob Baker, ICE field office director for detention and removal in San Diego.
There has, however, been no change in policy as to who gets picked up.
The agency uses administrative warrants instead of criminal warrants that require agents to ask permission before entering. But many immigrants don't understand the difference, said John Amaya, a legislative staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF.
“People don't understand that with one of these administrative warrants, they don't have to open the door,” Amaya said.
In addition, the warrants do not limit law enforcement to arresting only the person named.
MALDEF is among the advocacy groups that have lobbied Obama's transition team on immigration policy changes. One administrative change could be to order the agency to stick to its list, Amaya said. As it is now, “as long as they are brown and speak Spanish, they are going to be questioned.”
Such a directive would be “absurd,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington research group that favors tougher restrictions on immigration.
“Obviously, if the agents encounter other illegal immigrants, they have to take them in,” Krikorian said. “I suppose they could narrow the focus so they don't ask about anybody other than the fugitive they are looking for, but that is not going to satisfy the open-border groups.”
Krikorian and others anticipate that changes will be made to ICE enforcement policies. However, the agency's fugitive operations, up from eight teams in 2003 to about 100 today, are funded through Sept. 30. Their budget has nearly doubled since fiscal 2006.
For now, Abend and his agents will continue doing their jobs. Toward the end of their recent operation in North County, the agents knocked on the door of an apartment off an alley in a poor section of Vista, looking for a man with a string of arrests for public drunkenness.
A young woman came to the door with a baby and toddler. In Spanish, she told them she had never heard of him – another wrong address. The agents thanked her and left.
If a check of her status had shown she were here illegally, Abend said, it's unlikely someone alone with children would be arrested on the spot.
“Everybody doesn't have to get handcuffs put on them,” he said. “We can send them a notice to appear by mail, if it's a real concern.”