SANTA ANA, Calif. - Wanted: Illegal immigrants with clean records who have ignored court orders to leave the country. Immigration officials are standing by to help you leave the country. No jail. No joke.
That invitation drew no takers Tuesday on the first day of a new federal “self-deportation” program that offered 457,000 eligible illegal immigrants the chance to turn themselves in, get their affairs in order and leave the country without being detained.
The lack of response only reinforced doubts about an idea that has drawn criticism and even ridicule from both sides of the immigration debate.
“You would have to be crazy — who would want to turn themselves in?” said Angel Martinez, a construction worker who waited Tuesday outside ICE’s Charlotte, N.C., office while his son visited a friend detained on immigration violations.
“Nobody wants to go back,” said Martinez, who came to the U.S. illegally 15 years ago from Mexico City. “We risked everything to get here for a reason.”
The offer from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement runs through Aug. 22 in Phoenix, Santa Ana, San Diego, Chicago and Charlotte, N.C., as part of the agency’s new Scheduled Departure Program. It could be expanded nationwide if successful.
Agents were waiting to speed people through the process — which grants participants up to three months to get their affairs in order and provides the comfort of knowing their homes won’t be raided. But by Tuesday afternoon, nobody had shown up.
“Are people actually doing it? I really find it hard to believe,” said Wendy Chavez, 22, of Anaheim, who took her mother for a citizenship test.
An ICE advertising campaign being launched Wednesday targets so-called immigration “fugitives,” illegal immigrants who got caught and ignored a judge’s order to leave but avoided other trouble with the law.
Of the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, about 572,000 are fugitives, although about 20 percent of them are ineligible to participate because they have criminal histories, officials said.
By turning themselves in, immigrants can also avoid spending weeks, months or possibly years in detention centers as their cases are processed by immigration courts.
The program “gives you time to make arrangements and take care of your personal matters,” the ad reads. “It is a way for you to plan your return home.”
When ICE agents arrive at a home to arrest a fugitive, they often find relatives and friends who are in the U.S. illegally but haven’t been ordered home. Those people may get deported too.
Robin Baker, who heads ICE’s detention and removal operations in San Diego, said participants in the program get up to 90 days to put their affairs in order, possibly longer, after turning themselves in. They are asked to check in with U.S. officials after leaving the country to let authorities know they kept their promise.
“We understand the impact it has on them when we knock on their doors early in the morning and take them out of their homes,” he said. “This allows them to leave on their own terms.”
And fugitives who aren’t from Mexico are likely to get another benefit: a one-way plane ticket home if they can’t afford the trip, just like immigrants arrested in raids. For Mexicans who are deported, ICE will consider paying bus fare to the border.
The program could also ease pressure on immigration courts and detention centers, which have been crowded by the Bush administration’s immigration crackdown at homes, factories and offices.
Juan Laguna, an immigration lawyer in Santa Ana, said some of his clients might be interested.
“They don’t want their children to go through the trauma of being arrested in the morning,” he said outside ICE offices Tuesday.
Some may sign up for the program to improve their standing with the government in case they ever seek to return legally, Laguna said. The ad says surrendering to authorities will be “noted by ICE as a factor in your immigration records.”
One group that opposes illegal immigration welcomed the effort. Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said taxpayers would save money if even only a few surrender because ICE won’t have to look for them.
The ad campaign targets ethnic media in the five cities, starting with the Prensa Hispana newspaper in Phoenix. In Chicago, ICE planned ads in La Raza, the city’s largest Spanish-language weekly, and on Spanish- and Polish-language radio.
ICE officials hesitated to predict turnout but Robert Alfieri, supervisory deportations officer in Charlotte, had a message for critics: “For anyone to say no one will do it, that’s absolutely wrong.”