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Illegal Immigrant Fugitives Fail to Turn Themselves In; Feds Ending Voluntary Program Today

By Ray Stern

About 1,700 fugitive illegal immigrants from the Phoenix area were eligible for a three-week voluntary deportation pilot program that's ending today.

Only one turned himself in. A guy from Estonia.

Nationwide, a whopping total of eight people took advantage of the program. Only one was from Mexico, the country of origin for most illegal immigrants in the Valley.

The pilot program, "Operation Scheduled Departure," was roundly criticized when it launched. An August 5 Arizona Republic article quotes two immigration lawyers who claim the program provided no real incentives to illegal immigrants who qualified. AnAssociated Press story making the rounds today makes similar claims:

The program was criticized for offering little incentive for illegal immigrants to step forward since they would be barred from returning to the United States for as long as a decade.

The fact is, though, the immigrants who qualified for the program have been ordered by an immigration judge to leave the country, and they've defied those orders.

They don't need incentives at that point. They need a shove.

Technically, those 1,700 immigrants have even less right to be here than your average Mexican border crosser, who -- if caught by authorities -- at least has a chance to beg a judge to let them stay in the United States for some reason. Once a judge has signed a deportation order, though, the game is over. Or, at least, it should be.

Nationwide, more than 457,000 people qualified for the voluntary program. The volunteers could not be wanted for any other crime, implying these are among the most responsible illegal immigrants in the United States. They aren't the typical Arizona "illegal" -- they're mostly people who overstayed their visas, were rejected for asylum, or had some other reason to make previous contact with immigration authorities.

Sometimes, the authorities even have an address on file for these people. As Vincent Picard, a local spokesman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, explains, "It's not like looking for a needle in a haystack."

The incentives of Scheduled Departure, as Picard sees it, was this:

You don't get arrested at 5 a.m. in your home, in front of your kids. You don't spend time in a prison-like detention facility.

Now, with the miserable failure of the voluntary program, ICE has a new excuse to ramp up its arrests of immigration fugitives -- even more so than it has been doing lately.

In the three-week run of the program, ICE agents arrested more than 1,000 immigrants nationwide who had blown off court orders to leave the country.

Of course, ICE would have to really put the pedal to the metal if it intends to meet its goal of removing all deportable immigrants.

At the rate of 1,000 removals in three weeks, it will take ICE more than 26 years to find and deport all the people who have current court orders to leave.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.