Fugitives decline to turn selves in

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 the three-week pilot produced just eight volunteers nationwide.

“I think we learned that the most effective means to restore integrity to the nation's immigration system is the enforcement of immigration laws,” said Jim Hayes, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's detention and removal 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 a 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 not to 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 might have participated, he said, if ICE offered to remove some penalties, such the 10-year ban on re-entry 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 ICE was “extremely discouraged” by the backlash from immigrant advocates.

He said arrests of fugitive illegal immigrants will continue.

ICE has arrested 29,000 fugitives this year, including 1,300 during the pilot program.

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.

“If you have a law and there is no consequence for violating it,” Hayes said, “the result is anarchy.”