Feds to fugitives: It's time to deport

Charlotte has been chosen as a pilot city for a federal “self-deport” program to encourage fugitive illegal immigrants to turn themselves in.

Illegal immigrants who have been previously ordered to leave the country have from Tuesday until Aug. 22 to report to U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement offices in Charlotte or risk being tracked down at their home or work and jailed.

Under “Operation Scheduled Departure,” ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said nonviolent illegal immigrants without criminal records will have up to 90 days to pull together money and make arrangements to return to their home countries.

It ends the risk of sudden arrest for those who qualify, she said, and minimizes the impact on loved ones.

Amnesty would not be offered as an incentive, she said, and volunteers might have to wear electronic tracking devices until they leave the country.

“We've done this because there have been a lot of people from the community who have contacted us asking for a way to present themselves to schedule their departure instead of being arrested,” she said.

Charlotte is one of five cities participating, along with Santa Ana, Calif., San Diego, Phoenix and Chicago. Immigration officials say more than 500,000 of the illegal immigrants in the United States have been ordered to leave but did not.

Reaction to the program was mixed.

Maudia Melendez, head of Jesus Ministry, a Charlotte advocacy group, said her initial response is that the ICE program will appeal to families who can't afford to see a parent go to jail.

“I'm very hurt when people call me and say ‘my husband is being deported. He was the only one who was working. Now what is going to happen to my family,'” she said.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, called the plan “harebrained,” and said it would do little to reduce the overall undocumented population – estimated at 12 million.

“This is nothing more than a modern day ‘Trail of Tears,' enticing immigrants with the dream of fair treatment and a better life, only to find themselves on a path to permanent exile,” he said.

Standing outside a South Boulevard convenience store Thursday, Asuncion Garcia said he did not know if he is considered a fugitive. But he said he lives in fear of immigration agents knocking on his door.

The 49-year-old painter said he moved illegally to North Carolina two years ago from Mexico. He will not turn himself in, he said, because he needs to make money to send home for his wife and six children.

“I have a lot of people who depend on me,” he said. “Anything I gain, they wait for like hungry little birds.”

Jose Lopez said he will not volunteer either. Yes, the uncertainty he lives with will grow, the 31-year-old father said. But he says the risk has always been there.

“What happens, happens.”

The self-deport program was announced the same day as a new report that contends tougher immigration policies are working.

The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that supports tougher immigration enforcement, said illegal immigrants in the United States declined 11 percent from August 2007 to May.

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