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Outnumbered in a hunt for aliens

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Part two of three

LOS ANGELES -- It is shortly before 4 a.m. when Jorge Field gathers his team in a deserted parking lot in South Central Los Angeles.

The nine men and one woman quietly strap themselves into flak jackets, meticulously check their weapons and listen attentively to a quick but precise briefing, as they prepare to hunt for five convicted criminal aliens and a suspected terrorist threat.

"Let's go," commands Mr. Field, the supervisory agent of this U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fugitive operations squad.

Traveling over the nearly abandoned streets at a quick pace with the lights out, the vehicles are guided over the radio by agent Loyda Rocha, who yesterday scouted the targets in this South Central Los Angeles corridor, now overrun by high unemployment and controlled by violent gangs.

No words are spoken. Everyone knows their assignment. The pre-dawn darkness is their ally.

"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement," Miss Rocha shouts as she bangs on the first door. "Federal agents, open the door."

She repeats the command in Spanish.

During the next 3-1/2 hours as part of an operation the agents refer to as "knock and talk," the team will arrest three Mexican nationals and a Guatemalan, all convicted criminals, and an Israeli national sought by the U.S. government as a potential terrorist threat.

None offers any resistance. And no one is hurt, unlike other engagements in the past year when two agents were shot and wounded. Miss Rocha's intelligence-gathering is spotless.

Tomorrow morning, the team will be ready to do it again, one of only 18 such squads nationwide seeking to arrest 80,000 criminal aliens -- including killers, rapists, drug dealers and child molesters -- and at least 320,000 "absconders," foreign nationals who were ordered deported but disappeared.

Coordinated through an aggressive, but undermanned and underfunded ICE initiative known as the National Fugitive Operations Program, the 18 fugitive teams translate to barely 200 agents looking for nearly a half-million criminal aliens and absconders hiding in communities from Seattle and Los Angeles to Miami and New York City.

"How can we expect so few agents to effectively deal with such a vast problem?" asked Michael W. Cutler, a retired U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) senior agent who spent 31 years with the agency as a criminal investigator and intelligence specialist.

"The answer is, of course, we can't," he said.

A monthlong investigation by The Washington Times, which included interviews with ICE supervisors and agents, other law-enforcement officials and immigration experts from Washington state to California and Florida, showed that the agency has begun a reinvigorated program aimed at apprehending America's most dangerous fugitive aliens.

But the inquiry also found that the ICE Office of Detention and Removal continues to be the victim of long-standing budgetary constraints and rigidly pursued, often politically dictated policies that have devoted five times as much manpower and resources to border enforcement than to interior-enforcement efforts.

"They're being asked to do an incredibly dangerous job, one in which they are perilously outnumbered," Mr. Cutler said. "Until we adequately fund this program, the security of our country and the safety of our people will remain in jeopardy."

Los Angeles' 10-member team, for example, is responsible for the detection and detention of criminal aliens in six Southern California counties, with an area of more than 35,000 square miles and a population of about 15 million people.

"We're making a difference out here, doing a job that not everyone wants, but doing it to the best of our ability," Mr. Field said. "These agents put themselves in a hostile situation everyday, acting on instinct and having trust and confidence in their fellow agents. I am very proud of them."

Many ICE supervisors and agents think that both Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the White House repeatedly have ignored rapidly rising numbers of aliens in America, including violent criminals -- succumbing to lobbying efforts by immigration advocates and business leaders, many of whom contribute huge sums of money to both political parties.

The pro-immigration lobby is strong and growing, assisted by various organizations, legal defense funds and churches, including the influential Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Los Angeles, which denounced the Border Patrol arrests of 420 illegal aliens at inland Southern California communities.

At a press conference last month, the Rev. Michael D. Gutierrez, pastor at St. Anne's Catholic Church in Santa Monica, backed by three dozen priests from the Los Angeles Archdiocese, reminded Border Patrol officials that "some of your parents and grandparents also were immigrants and that the undocumented are also today your brothers and sisters."

Lack of leadership

ICE supervisors and agents are not only concerned about pro-immigration lobbying efforts and a lack of funding and manpower, but by what they called a lack of effective leadership in Washington that has failed to develop a clearly defined interior immigration-enforcement strategy.

But Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia, who heads ICE, has downplayed the accusations, saying the agency is "committed to aggressively tracking, apprehending and removing fugitive aliens" despite limited resources and manpower.

Mr. Garcia thinks the ICE Office of Detention and Removal is where the agency has "the best opportunity to make the most progress," adding that he was looking to match resources with programs, based on budgetary priorities.

He also described the detention and removal program as the "final step" in the country's immigration-enforcement process, saying it is designed to promote public safety and combat immigration-related crimes "by removing individuals, especially criminals and other threats to public safety, who are unlawfully in the United States."

And the impact of those criminals aliens now loose in America is felt by most cities.

In Los Angeles, for example, more than 90 percent of all outstanding homicide warrants are for illegal aliens, and about 65 percent of the city's fugitive felony warrants involve illegals. In Phoenix, alien-smuggling operations last year resulted in a huge surge in home invasions and alien-related violent crimes.

"Our first and foremost priority has got to be criminal aliens," said Thomas M. Baranick, deputy field office director for ICE detention and removal operations in Phoenix. "They prey on the communities and represent a tremendous threat to the safety and security of the public."

Nationwide, the Justice Department says about 40,000 illegal aliens are being held in the federal prison system, about 25 percent of the prison population. They are the fastest-growing segment, and each inmate costs taxpayers about $21,000 a year to house.

But although ICE agents nationwide detain as many as 400 criminal aliens and absconders every day, nearly equal numbers of new fugitive aliens are added daily to the list, a turnstile that ICE wants to stanch with additional manpower.

In ICE's pending $4.01 billion budget for fiscal 2005, Mr. Garcia wants to expand the number of fugitive operations squads to 30 to eliminate "the existing backlog and growth of the fugitive alien population." Proposed staffing increases would raise the number of fugitive operations squad members from 200 to 400.

Immigration vs. enforcement

Many ICE supervisors and agents also blame the dearth of funding on the former INS leadership, which, they said, viewed illegal aliens as "clients instead of criminals." ICE took over responsibility for enforcing the country's immigration interior-enforcement laws in March 2003, when it was created as a part of the Department of Homeland Security and INS was dissolved.

During a recent press briefing, Mr. Garcia noted that the immigration authority under which INS operated had been replaced at ICE with a law-enforcement authority and the agency had made the removal of criminal aliens and absconders from the United States "a national priority."

The newer agency's detention and removal program focuses not only on removing criminal aliens from the nation's interior, but also on dismantling alien-smuggling rings, building partnerships to solve local immigration problems, minimizing immigration-document fraud and blocking employers' access to undocumented workers.

In the past year, ICE has arrested more than 3,200 foreign nationals and lawful permanent U.S. residents as suspected child molesters as part of "Operation Predator," a federal program targeting criminals who sexually abuse children. About half of those arrested were illegal aliens.

Mr. Garcia said the operation began after ICE investigators determined that many absconders in America had been convicted for sexual offenses, particularly crimes against children. He said under federal law, noncitizens who commit such crimes are to be deported.

To date, fewer than 500 of those arrested in the past year have been deported.

But the identification and removal of high-risk fugitive aliens and absconders from the United States remains the agency's key focus, ensuring that those already named as criminal aliens are removed from the country expeditiously .

Despite an ongoing lack of resources, many agents and supervisors within ICE's detention and removal program think the March 2003 creation of ICE brought renewed life to long-ignored and historically underfunded enforcement efforts.

"We are the support part of this organization and haven't always gotten the manpower and resources we've needed," said J. Michael Vaughn, supervisory detention and deportation officer at the Los Angeles processing center, which processes between 3,000 and 4,500 illegal aliens a month.

"I think that's changing, and the numbers are beginning to turn around for us," he said.

Protective policies

Even if the agency gets more resources and manpower, the agents say their efforts will continue to be hampered by policies protective of illegals, such as "sanctuary laws," that municipalities have adopted to prohibit their employees, including police officers, from enforcing federal immigration law.

The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, has a long-standing policy known as "Special Order 40" that prohibits its officers from informing federal immigration officials about illegal aliens they discover during the normal course of their duties. Adopted by the department in 1979, the order is supposed to assuage the fears of illegal aliens that they may be deported if they seek assistance from local law enforcement.

The National Council of La Raza supports sanctuary laws, saying that allowing local police agencies to enforce federal immigration laws results in racial profiling, police misconduct and civil rights violations. The council also thinks the use of local police for immigration enforcement undermines community-policing efforts, undercuts effective law-enforcement and hampers anti-terrorism efforts.

Earlier this year, La Raza joined a class-action lawsuit to stop the government from entering immigration information into the National Crime Information Center, which includes data on felons, fugitives and others being sought by federal law enforcement. La Raza said the data was being misused in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Sanctuary laws also are in place in varying degrees in major cities, including San Francisco; New York; Chicago; San Diego; Austin, Texas; and Houston. Several cities prohibit their employees from even asking about a person's immigration status.

On July 7, the House voted down an amendment by Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, that would have forced state and local police officers to report illegal aliens to federal authorities. Mr. King had sought to include the amendment as part of the Commerce-Justice-State Department appropriations bill.

"These so-called 'sanctuary' policies wreak havoc on communities, especially in situations where illegal immigrants commit crimes and should be reported ... and deported, but are not and are released to commit crimes again," Mr. King said.

He withdrew the amendment after no members rose to support it. It was opposed by Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican and chairman of the Appropriations commerce, justice, state and judiciary subcommittee, who said it had no place on the commerce appropriations bill because immigration is a homeland-security function.

ICE agents and supervisors overwhelmingly are opposed to sanctuary laws, saying the inclusion of the country's 650,000 state and local police officers in the situational enforcement of immigration law would be a boon.

They refer to it as a "force multiplier," saying state and local police often have the first opportunity at identifying criminal aliens and absconders during traffic stops, field interrogations and arrests. They also said sanctuary laws encourage illegal immigration and offer shelter for would-be terrorists by allowing illegal aliens to establish themselves as residents.

Rep. Charlie Norwood, Georgia Republican, said ICE needs help in capturing thousands of convicted aliens now loose in America and wants Congress to pass pending bipartisan legislation to address what he calls "America's criminal-alien crisis."

"Sending 2,000 federal agents into the field to find 80,000 criminal aliens is like trying to stop a tidal wave with hand towels," he said. "It's a farce, it doesn't work, and the outmanned folks at ICE -- as the numbers now show us -- are simply drowning."

The five-term congressman has introduced the Clear Law Enforcement for Alien Removal Act, or CLEAR Act, that would, among other things, give 650,000 state and local police officers authority to enforce immigration law. The pending bill has 115 co-sponsors of both parties and has been endorsed by more than 50 law-enforcement agencies.

"America's men and women wearing the badge and making our streets safer deserve better than a dangerously inefficient and unresponsive immigration system that asks them to arrest and re-arrest any number of 80,000 criminal aliens that our failed federal system put there to begin with," he said.

But the bill remains stalled in committee.

'Knock and talk'

ICE supervisors and agents also noted that an important issue facing the fugitive operations squads is the matter of the warrant under which they operate in detaining fugitive aliens. Known as an "administrative warrant," they said it does not have the same legal weight as a court-ordered bench warrant.

The administrative warrant, they said, allows the agents to "knock and talk," but doesn't require the targeted fugitives to allow them to enter their houses or to even answer the door.

"That fact is certainly getting around, particularly among the gang-bangers and the Spanish-language newspapers here," said one Los Angeles team member. "Pretty soon when we knock and ask if they want to talk, they're going to say no."

ICE administrators have recognized many of the problems facing the agents it assigns to capture criminal aliens and absconders. A 48-page strategic plan known as "Endgame," released in June 2003, described the current workload for the agents as "daunting," adding that the capture of criminal aliens and absconders was "manpower intensive."

"The success of the mission relies heavily on available human resources and their capabilities," the plan said, calling for the ICE Office of Detention and Removal to "work diligently" to close the gaps between its work force and the demands for service.

In March, Mr. Garcia told the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security that he needed funding increases to allow ICE to continue its commitment, through the fugitive operations squads, to aggressively track, apprehend and remove fugitive aliens in the United States. He said he sought to eliminate an existing backlog over the next six years.

As part of their effort, ICE already has introduced "Operation Compliance," which seeks to identify foreign nationals who have lost an immigration appeal and were ordered removed. Begun in Connecticut and now operating in Atlanta and Denver, the program puts ICE agents in the courtroom to take into custody those who lose their immigration appeal.

Those detained remain in custody at ICE detention centers until their appeals are exhausted or they post bail. The program addresses the fact that fewer than 15 percent of those aliens ordered to an immigration hearing ever appear.

Immigration advocates have opposed the program and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), which boasts about 8,000 members, has sought information on potential clients "who have been detained" in its wake.

Marshall Fitz, associate director of advocacy for the AILA, said Operation Compliance groups illegal immigrants who have been convicted of crimes with those who have not -- a reality he called "unfair." He called it a "blanket policy" that is in violation of basic due-process principles.

In Los Angeles, Mr. Field, a former INS senior agent who was assigned to ICE when Homeland Security was formed, said the "biggest problem we had before ICE was created was a lack of support." He said it was "difficult to do your job when you knew those who controlled your budget didn't care."

That lack of concern, he said, showed itself in the quality of equipment that the agents received to get the job done.

"It just wasn't there," he said. "But I believe they are now trying to address the problems, and it shows in the equipment we're getting ... including brand-new, fully equipped vehicles and consolidated radios frequencies, neither of which we've had in the past.

"I think they now know that the success of what we can do is a matter of funding, and I believe they are trying to address it," he said.

Several agents said the new ICE commitment for manpower increases has persuaded several veteran agents to stay with the agency, which they called important to fugitive squads that rely on experience to keep team members from getting hurt.

"There are tell-tale signs out here, like gang and prison tattoos, graffiti and gang affiliations, that can be dangerous if you are unaware of them," one agent said. "Most of it can only be learned through experience on the street. And it's that experience that can quickly turn around a potentially hostile situation."

Another veteran agent noted that the most dangerous part of the job is not always the targeted alien, but friends, family and associates who also might be at the house.

"We often find houses that are filled with people, mostly illegal aliens, sleeping shoulder to shoulder or under the stairwells," the agent said. "You never know what their intentions might be, and that can be very hairy."

Part One: Aliens hiding in plain site