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Federal self-deport starts slow

After its first day, the new federal self-deport program for illegal immigrants has no takers in Charlotte.

“Operation Scheduled Departure” drew some interest but no volunteers. It was created by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to encourage fugitive illegal immigrants to turn themselves in. Charlotte is one of five major test cities. Another, Chicago, also drew no volunteers.

Illegal immigrants who have been previously ordered to leave the country have until Aug. 22 to report to ICE offices on Tyvola Centre Drive or risk being tracked down and jailed.

Tuesday morning, Reyna Montes, 44, stood outside ICE offices with her husband and four children reading about the program. She said the family visited the agency after learning she had a deportation order from 2000 that she did not know about. She plans to consider the new program.

“It's very difficult to decide,” Montes said. “They could come tomorrow to deport me. I worry about my children.”

Amnesty will not be offered, officials say, and volunteers might have to wear electronic tracking devices until they leave the country.

“We wanted to offer individuals who had not committed a crime to come in instead of having our fugitive operation teams go to their homes and arrest them,” said Raymond Simonse, ICE's field office director from Atlanta. “It's just a matter of time until that knock comes at your door.”

ICE says as many as 10,000 fugitive illegal immigrants live in the Carolinas.

Simonse, who is heading the operation in the Carolinas and Georgia, said he was not concerned by the lack of first-day turnout. He said word is still spreading around the immigrant community. ICE also plans to advertise in local Spanish-language newspapers and radio as part of a $50,000 ad campaign in the test cities.

Advocates for the undocumented community say they were not surprised by the lack of response. “The program is no benefit,” said Rafael Prieto, editor of Mi Gente newspaper. “It's just a way to scare more people into leaving. ‘Turn yourself in or we'll hunt you down at home.'”

Prieto said he would refuse any ICE requests to advertise in his newspaper.

Charlotte was picked for the program in part because it has a fugitive-tracking team. The team, created in January 2006, is made up of six deportation officers and agents who hunt fugitive illegal immigrants. Santa Ana, Calif., San Diego, Phoenix and Chicago were also chosen as pilot cities.

Immigration officials say more than 500,000 of the illegal immigrants in the United States have been ordered to leave but have not. Simonse said ICE is arresting more of them each year.

ICE did not release numbers on N.C. arrests, but said 1,456 fugitives have been arrested in the Carolinas and Georgia in the past 10 months.

Franco Ordoñez: 704-358-6180