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One illegal immigrant agrees to 'self-deport'

Only one illegal immigrant in Charlotte volunteered for a pilot deportation program urging illegal immigrant fugitives to turn themselves in, federal officials said Friday.

The federal government ended the controversial program, known as “Operation Scheduled Departure,” after a three-week pilot program produced just eight volunteers nationwide.

“We're not considering expanding or extending the program,” said Jim Hayes, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's detention and removal operations. “This program proves that the most effective way of [enforcing the law] is doing it the way we've been doing it – through enforcement operations.”

ICE opened the program up to an estimated 457,000 illegal immigrants nationwide – including 6,000 in the Charlotte region – who had previously been ordered to leave the country. They were given a chance to turn themselves in. In return they would receive up to 90 days to plan their departure – instead of facing the risk of being arrested.

Applicants could sign up at ICE offices in Charlotte, Chicago, Phoenix, San Diego and Santa Ana, Calif., where some 30,000 fugitive illegal immigrants are believed to reside.

In Charlotte, ICE reported that one man from El Salvador came forward.

Others included an Estonian man in Phoenix, a Guatemalan man and Indian couple in Chicago, a Mexican woman in San Diego and a Guatemalan man and Lebanese man in Santa Ana, according to ICE.

“Operation Scheduled Departure” was characterized as “an opportunity” for fugitive illegal immigrants to come forward instead of having immigration agents arrest them at home or at their workplace.

Few illegal immigrants saw it that way.

“However it's disguised, it's another way to try to get rid of us,” said Gelber, 27, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who works as dishwasher in Charlotte.

Gelber, who didn't want his last name used, has lived here for six years – always at risk of being arrested and deported. “Why would we turn ourselves in?” he asked. “We've already suffered so much to get here.”

Critics of the program are now calling it a failure.

Rafael Prieto, editor of Mi Gente newspaper in Charlotte, had pleaded with local illegal immigrants in his editorials to not turn themselves in. In a recent column, he called the program a “repugnant offer” that only “generates terror” among a passive community that has harmed no one.

Prieto and others said the program lacked any real incentives. People may have participated, he said, if ICE offered to remove some penalties, such the 10-year ban on reentry for those who had entered the country illegally.

“It failed because it didn't make sense,” Prieto said. “It didn't make sense because people could always leave on their own without reporting themselves to immigration.”

Hayes said the backlash from the immigration advocates affected participation.

“We were extremely discouraged by their reaction to this program,” he said.