SANTA ANA, Calif. - The federal government will scrap a program for illegal immigrants to turn themselves in for deportation after only eight people volunteered during a nearly three-week trial, an official said Thursday.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offered the pilot program in five cities, giving illegal immigrants facing court orders to leave the country 90 days to plan their departure and coordinate travel with relatives instead of facing the prospect of being arrested, detained and deported.
ICE will end its "Scheduled Departure" program when the trial period concludes Friday, Jim Hayes, acting director of ICE's detention and removal operations, told The Associated Press.
"The bottom line is it is not effective," Hayes said. "Quite frankly, I think this proves the only method that works is enforcement."
The initiative drew skepticism, even ridicule, from many immigration activists who have criticized ICE's increasing raids on homes and businesses.
Hayes said lack of support from those activists shows they are unwilling to accept any enforcement.
"They want amnesty, they want open borders, and they want a more vulnerable America," he said.
Hayes told the AP that other tactics have proven more effective. ICE has been tracking down so-called immigration "fugitives" by knocking on their doors at home, often during predawn hours.
ICE offered the program to 457,000 illegal immigrants nationwide who have ignored judicial orders to leave the country but have no criminal record. Applicants could sign up for the program at ICE offices in Charlotte, N.C., Chicago, Phoenix, San Diego and Santa Ana.
ICE estimates 30,000 eligible immigrants lived in the five cities where the program was offered.
The eight volunteers included an Estonian man in Phoenix, a Guatemalan man and Indian couple in Chicago, a Salvadoran man in Charlotte, a Mexican woman in San Diego and a Guatemalan man and Lebanese man in Santa Ana, according to ICE.
ICE spent $41,000 to advertise the program. Hayes said the government may have saved money because the cost of detaining the six immigrants who turned themselves in during the program's first week would have been $37,000.
Immigrant advocates said the program offered few incentives and failed to consider undocumented immigrants' ties to family in the U.S. They said they worry that ICE will cite the weak turnout as a reason to step up the raids, since it now can say that it made an effort to enforce the law in a way that was less disruptive to illegal immigrants and their families.
"My hope is it isn't going to empower them or fuel their enforcement even further," immigration lawyer Lisa Ramirez said Thursday.
Jorge-Mario Cabrera, director of community education for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said the offer was laughable.
"We do not believe they were really interested in having people turn themselves in," he said.
ICE said it hatched the plan in an effort to quell criticism of the surge in immigration raids. One supporter of tougher enforcement said the low turnout will help insulate the agency from some of that criticism.
"It was calling their bluff," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
While ICE has increased arrests of illegal immigrants in recent years, several immigrants said many people feel they have a decent chance of sticking it out here longer than the government would give them if they came forward.
"Why are they going to go back to their country and pay someone to bring them over here again?" asked Rigoberto Moreno, 46, who entered the country illegally from Mexico as a teenager in the 1970s and has since become a U.S. citizen.