Self-Deportation Program Finds Few Takers


SAN DIEGO -- Have you ever seen a giant surrender? It's pretty pathetic.

That's the word that comes to mind when a gargantuan government agency with more than 16,000 employees and a $5 billion annual budget suddenly throws up its hands and gives up on one of its major responsibilities. In fact, when that agency is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, there is even a name for the act of surrender: Operation Scheduled Departure.

We are now almost halfway into a 17-day pilot self-deportation program that ICE is trying out in San Diego and four other U.S. cities: Chicago, Phoenix, Charlotte, N.C., and Santa Ana, Calif. The program ends Aug. 22.

So far, not so good. There aren't many takers for the government's less-than-generous offer to allow 457,000 illegal immigrants without criminal records and who pose no threat to national security to voluntarily turn themselves in to federal authorities. Anyone who did want to schedule their own departure would be given 90 days to get their affairs in order and -- here's the part ICE doesn't advertise -- be outfitted with an electronic ankle bracelet to keep track of their whereabouts in the meantime.

The offer is being made to "fugitive aliens," people who have appeared before an immigration judge and been ordered to leave the country, but haven't complied with the deportation order.

That part isn't surprising. If the illegal immigrants are from Mexico, and the lion's share of them are, what awaits them at home isn't appealing -- the prospect of having to support their families on $6 per day when they could make 15 or 20 times that on this side of the border. Then there's the fact that, while ICE likes to project this image that it is roaming the countryside and "knocking on doors," I suspect that not that many doors actually get knocked on. In order to want to voluntarily leave the country, illegal immigrants have to have a realistic fear that they'll be picked up and that the process will be messier and perhaps more dangerous than the self-deportation route.

As it stands, most illegal immigrants are probably more likely to be struck by lightning than to ever be paid a visit by ICE. According to an ICE spokesman, last year the agency arrested about 30,000 fugitive aliens in the entire country. At that rate, it would take 400 years for the agency to clear through the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the United States.

Do-nothingism is a reputation the agency has worked hard to build. Just ask any local or state police officer who, having run across an illegal immigrant and done his duty by calling ICE to pick him up, waited and waited only to eventually realize that no one was coming. Or ask any of those who were picked up in the recent series of immigration raids -- deservedly so, I might add -- but who had to watch those who had employed them, and in some cases allegedly abused them, get off without so much as a warning.

Clearly, ICE is suffering a meltdown. It is the result of an overhaul that the Immigration and Naturalization Service got after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and now it desperately needs an overhaul of its own.

Of course, it's the future we're talking about. It's too late for the crew that is there now. Julie Myers, assistant secretary of homeland security for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has been a disaster ever since she was nominated in 2005 when she was just 36. She is the niece of Richard Myers, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and she is married to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's former chief of staff. Julie Myers got into trouble even before her Senate confirmation when a Homeland Security employee showed up at a staff Halloween party dressed in prison stripes, dreadlocks and dark makeup. Later, digital photos from the party surfaced, despite the fact that Myers had ordered them erased. That was embarrassing. Now, by signing off on this ridiculous self-deport program, Myers has made the agency a laughingstock.

The next president needs to make it clear that he's serious about immigration enforcement by finding a serious person to head what needs to once again be thought of as a serious agency. But who would want the job now? Say, why not take a page from the agency's playbook and ask for volunteers?

© 2008, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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