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Monday, May 31, 2004

Feds adopt tougher strategy to stop immigrants from evading deportation

Feds adopt tougher strategy to stop immigrants from evading deportation

By Tanya Weinberg
Staff Writer

May 31, 2004

For the first time, federal immigration authorities are pursuing a comprehensive plan to reduce the growing number of immigrants who evade deportation orders.

Early stages of a strategy to track immigrants through stepped-up detentions and a supervised release program, to make its debut in Miami this summer, have drawn criticism from immigrant advocates, while giving hope to those pushing for stricter enforcement and even to some immigrants.

The supervised release program appeals to Colombian asylum seeker Orfa Salazar, now participating in a similar pilot program that monitors her movements with an ankle bracelet. She is still waiting for her work permit and cannot stay out past 8 p.m. When she ventured to the beach recently, she tied a bandana around her leg to hide the bracelet.

Still, Salazar feels much freer than she did during her 10 months in federal immigration detention in Pompano Beach. She hopes for even more flexible monitoring under the new intensive supervision program.

But other immigrants, especially those never jailed as they take their political asylum or permanent residency petitions through the courts, are terrified by the prospect of stricter detention policies included in "Operation Endgame."

The major overhaul of the deportation process became a political goal only after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks brought illegal immigration into sharp focus.

The reshuffled federal agency now known as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, estimates that more than 400,000 immigrants have evaded deportation, and that the numbers are growing. It aims to reduce the total to zero within eight years.

The first planned step, being tested in some cities, is to detain immigrants as soon as judges deny their cases and order them removed. Now, many deportable immigrants without criminal histories remain free as they pursue appeals or dissolve their households. Officials say tens of thousands a year go underground rather than comply with final deportation orders.

Monitored releases

Appeals can stretch on for months before a final order is issued, and ICE has no plans to expand limited national detention space of about 23,000 beds. Instead, the agency aims to release many of the immigrants and track them until deportation under the intensive supervision program. That program will be rolled out in Miami and seven other cities this summer.

"These are things we've thought about many times, but because of politics, because of funding issues, various issues, couldn't get through the system," said Mike Rozos, who will soon take over the agency's detention and removal operations in Florida. "We want to work more efficiently."

The intensive supervision program will lead to more monitored releases, as under the ankle-bracelet pilot program now being tested with Salazar and dozens of others who are fighting deportation. The private firm slated to monitor the first 1,600 immigrants in the program, Colorado-based Behavioral Intervention, Inc., is contracted to select the supervisory method or methods of its choice.

Immigrant advocates want to see parole-type reporting they say has been effective in past trials. Salazar says a voice-recognition call-in program would allow her more flexibility as she appeals her case.

However, most immigrants fighting deportation are more likely to be detained. Authorities say the new policies will increase compliance with deportation orders. However, immigrant advocates believe across-the-board detentions will backfire.

"I'm afraid to tell my clients, because, number one, they're going to run away, or if they don't run away, how freaked out are they going to be at their hearings?" said Miami immigration attorney Tammy Fox-Isicoff.

Getting locked up is an especially jarring prospect for one of Fox-Isicoff's clients. The young Ukrainian woman's previous experience with detention lies at the root of her claim for political asylum, and the nightmares still cause her to jump out of bed at night, her husband says.

The husband, Alexander, asked that only his first name be used because he and his wife fear jeopardizing her case. They also fear possible repercussions if she is deported to Ukraine, where she worked as a secretary in the judicial system.

The young woman's troubles began when she confronted Ukrainian officials about prosecutors framing an innocent man for a murder committed by a government official, Alexander said. For that, police and officials abducted Alexander's wife from her home, jailed her, beat her and repeatedly threatened her life, he said.

Unduly harsh

Alexander points out that his wife sought help at the U.S. Embassy, obtained permission to travel here, and then applied for asylum.

"This person never broke the law, and nobody's hiding her," he said. "She suffered so much and she's scared of being detained again. ... She had so much hope that she can be protected in this country. Instead, somebody changed the law to violate human rights."

Fox-Isicoff says officials told her, in her capacity as attorney liaison to ICE, that across-the-board detentions could start locally as early as next year. Agency officials said they could not provide a timetable of when the new detention and intensive supervision policies would go national or when they will fit together.

As Operation Endgame is pieced together critics argue that new policies play out in ways that are unduly harsh and far from efficient. Immigration attorneys suspect that fear of detention is already prompting petitioners to skip their final immigration hearings. That may serve to shift the stage at which officials lose track of immigrants to one step earlier in the legal process.

ICE would not release any statistics to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel from the completed two-month detention pilot program in Hartford, nor from ongoing pilot programs in Atlanta and Denver.

"I think the reason that they have not released statistics from the Hartford project is that their absentia rate went right up," said Chuck Cook, national secretary for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "I've heard them say it's a negligible impact. Well, show me the money, show me the file."

Attorneys complain that the stress of preparing for an asylum hearing that could result in a life or death ruling is compounded by imminent detention should they lose. Federal officials say they will make exceptions in extreme cases, but going into a final hearing, immigrants may need to consider dissolving longtime households or arranging for child care in case they are taken into custody.

"It chills the whole nature of a fair and balanced hearing if people know there's [a detention officer] sitting there or sitting outside who's going to arrest them if it goes the wrong way," said David Leopold, the lawyers association's national liaison to ICE.

Criminal sentences

Immigration attorneys also report that once immigrants lose their case, the immigration and customs authority is setting high bonds that many cannot afford. Officials say bond is based on the likelihood a person will flee, and that anyone can later seek a reduction before a judge. Even so, advocates say, bonds can remain out of reach and low-risk immigrants can be stuck in detention for months.

Immigrant advocates say ICE is justifying new policies by exaggerating the numbers of those who evade deportation. A news release on the detention pilot program says that "more than 400,000 absconders" remain in the country. The release says the number grows by 40,000 each year, a number often cited by agency officials.

But the agency's statistician for detention and removal, John Bjerke, estimates that the absconder population grows annually by about 25,000. Thousands more who are ordered removed are not deportable for diplomatic or humanitarian reasons, or because they are completing criminal sentences, he said.

Bjerke said about 325,000 people have evaded deportation since 1990, the earliest that databases contain such data.

"Probably some significant part of this number of people has left the country. We're not going to know that," Bjerke said.

Advocates also question ICE officials' statements that only 13 to 15 percent of nondetained immigrants show up for immigration hearings. Bjerke said he has performed only initial analysis on such appearance rates but believes they are closer to 20 to 25 percent.

Opened doors

The federal agency has not performed a statistical analysis for the appearance rates of asylum seekers, who account for a large part of those seeking relief in South Florida immigration courts."Presumably, yes, there are some that do abscond, although as a whole I do not think there are significant numbers," Bjerke said. "At least, not the affirmative asylum seekers."

Affirmative asylum seekers are those not fighting deportation when they ask for asylum. They are precisely the people, like Alexander's wife from Ukraine, whom immigration attorneys say ICE's new policies will hit the hardest.

But for detained immigrants, new supervisory release programs offer hope. In the case of Salazar, the Colombian immigrant on an ankle-bracelet pilot program, release to her godmother's Hialeah home has opened many doors.

She no longer has to choose whether to call her husband or her children with one allotted monthly call to Colombia. She can call both. She is appealing a loss before an immigration judge, and can more easily contact her attorney. She's been able to obtain more documentation to support her claim that paramilitaries killed her husband's parents and four brothers, and threatened him with the same fate.

And Salazar looks forward to working or studying. She says she cannot do both because she must be home by 8 p.m. But she hopes that could change if new, less restrictive supervisory release programs are introduced.

"I am very happy because I am on the outside," said Salazar, whose next court date is in April 2005. "I just wonder if I'll have to wear the ankle bracelet for another year."

Tanya Weinberg can be reached at tweinberg@sun-sentinel.com or 305-810-5029.

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