The federal government's latest strategy to find and deport people in the country illegally calls on a new set of enforcers - illegal immigrants themselves.
Under "Operation Scheduled Departure," a test program, noncriminal illegal immigrants with final removal orders will have an opportunity to surrender for deportation and avoid arrest and detention, said Jim Hayes, acting director of the office of detention and removal at Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Starting Tuesday, and running through Aug. 22, eligible illegal immigrants will be able to turn themselves in at ICE offices in Phoenix; San Diego; Santa Ana, Calif.; Chicago; and Charlotte, N.C. They'll be granted up to 90 days to schedule their departure, Hayes said.
The program doesn't offer any monetary compensation or a path to legalization.
"The benefit is not being detained and being allowed to make arrangements for their families and themselves to join them or to schedule their departure," Hayes said. "But there is very little chance with an individual who has a final order of removal, that they are going to be eligible for any other type of benefit."
Illegal immigrants who don't have final removal orders and choose to be deported won't be turned away, but they won't be eligible for the benefits of the program, Hayes said. They will be processed under current policy and could be detained, he said.
Immigrant advocacy groups and anti-illegal immigrant organizations expressed skepticism that the program will entice many illegal immigrants to surrender. Without offering monetary compensation or a path to legalization, there's little reason for somebody who has risked so much to make it here to turn himself or herself in, they say.
Illegal immigrants in Arizona, especially, could decide to go home on their own whenever they want, said Jennifer Allen, director of Tucson-based Border Action Network. The fact that many immigrant families are a mixture of parents and children with and without legal paperwork makes it that much more unlikely, she said.
"People would be putting at risk other family members who are here and have their paperwork," Allen said. "So, what is the incentive for a mother to go turn herself in when her children are U.S. citizens?"
Hayes declined to estimate how many would turn themselves in, but said he considers it a realistic expectation that some of the estimated 457,000 noncriminal fugitive illegal immigrants in the United States would seize the opportunity.
Fugitive immigrants are defined as those who have been given a final removal order from an immigration judge but have not reported to an immigration office. There are 572,000 fugitive illegal immigrants in the country; however, 115,000 won't be eligible because they have criminal histories.