WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In a surprise crackdown, U.S. immigration officials will for the first time give the FBI names of 314,000 people who have disappeared to avoid being kicked out of the country. Local police will likely be the ones to enforce deportation.
Under the new policy, the Immigration and Naturalization Service will relay the names of such individuals to the National Crime Information Center, a criminal database maintained by the FBI and frequently consulted by local police.
Those who disappear during deportation proceedings--a relatively common, low-risk gamble in the past--could be caught during routine traffic stops or other minor brushes with law enforcement, INS officials said Wednesday. INS Commissioner James Ziglar said the new message is this: "If you don't want to be one of the guests in a detention center while we're getting your documents together, you might want to just go on home."
The almost total lack of knowledge of the whereabouts of more than 300,000 people scheduled for deportation has been a growing source of embarrassment for the INS, which has come under particular scrutiny since Sept. 11. All 19 of the suspected terrorist hijackers entered the country legally; two had overstayed their visas and a third had violated the terms of his visa.
In Congress, the agency's critics have pointed to missing immigrants as a flagrant example of INS ineptitude and a reason to reorganize the agency.
Yet even before Sept. 11, many wondered why immigration authorities did not do more about the so-called abscondees. Unlike other immigrants whose status is in question, the missing immigrants have exhausted their legal rights, or at least had the opportunity to do so.
The INS has always had the authority to pursue abscondees, but its officials have long maintained that they do not have enough resources to fully enforce immigration laws in the nation's interior.
The INS lack of knowledge "doesn't show some conspiracy to help illegal aliens," said Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington group that favors stricter limits on immigration. "It just shows that immigration enforcement has been a low priority for a long period of time."
In a typical deportation proceeding, an immigration judge considers whether a person has legal status to remain in the country. If the judge rules against the immigrant, it then falls to the INS to enforce the order. Immigrants ordered deported receive a "bag and baggage" letter instructing them to pack their luggage and report to the INS for deportation.
Faced with such orders, many deportees fade into U.S. society rather than turn themselves in.
INS officials estimated Wednesday that as many as 7% to 10% of those who have avoided deportation might be caught each year through the new procedures.
But it could take as long as a year for the agency to gather the 314,000 names and enter them into the National Criminal Information Center database. And when the task is completed, the INS could be faced with a sharp increase in its already strained workload.
Most of the 314,000 abscondees are believed to have violated immigration requirements but not to be dangerous criminals. They are a subset of an estimated 6 million to 8 million unlawful immigrants, most of whom entered the country illegally.
Roughly half of the undocumented population is Mexican, concentrated heavily in Southern California. An unknown number of abscondees may have left the country on their own.
Ziglar told reporters Wednesday that he broached the idea of the policy last week with Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, not as an anti-terrorism initiative but as a broader effort to increase the effectiveness of the INS. "The attorney general said, 'If you think this is the right thing to do, go for it,' " Ziglar recalled after an appearance at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Others were less enthusiastic, and the INS action sparked debate on what has long been a combustible issue: the role of local police agencies in the enforcement of immigration law.
"We get concerned whenever we see some kind of collaboration between local law enforcement and the INS," said Michele Waslin, a policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza. Such efforts, she said, heighten the risk that people will be deported wrongfully, and they make immigrants more fearful of police.
Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., said ousting those who are legally subject to deportation is "a valid law enforcement goal." But the innocent should have recourse, she stressed.
"You've got a lot of people walking around out there who have no idea there was a hearing or a deportation order against them," Butterfield said.
The INS policy would also rely on local police, who in many cases have limited their cooperation with the agency. Since 1979, the Los Angeles Police Department has followed a regulation that limits cooperation with the INS. The order generally bars officers from questioning people solely because of doubts about their immigration status. It was among the first such police directives nationwide.
Although community activists charge that the LAPD has often violated the directive, such as when hundreds of Border Patrol agents worked side by side with police during the 1992 riots, the separation of police and immigration authorities has become more or less an enshrined principle in Los Angeles and other cities with large immigrant populations.
The INS initiative also is an attempt to answer complaints on Capitol Hill, where many lawmakers view the agency as overwhelmed by a vast and complex mission.