U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says that for the first time, it has reduced the backlog of cases involving illegal aliens who failed to show up for immigration hearings or disappeared after being ordered deported.
Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Julie L. Myers, who heads ICE, said the nation's fugitive alien population — which grew by an average of 68,184 a year from September 2003 to September 2006 — has dropped by more than 500 names in the past two months.
"ICE has been working aggressively to improve the systems that help us identify, target and remove fugitive aliens from the United States," Mrs. Myers said. "By apprehending more fugitives and reducing the number of new fugitives, we're making unprecedented progress.
"This turning point is truly a significant milestone and a reflection that we're headed in the right direction; yet there is more work to be done," she said.
Mrs. Myers attributed the decline to a streamlining of business practices, a tripling of the number of ICE fugitive operations teams, an improvement in intelligence and analysis, increased available detention spaces, and an end to the practice of "catch and release" of some illegals at the border.
Even with the decline, a significant fugitive alien population remains. ICE estimates the number at 632,189.
The Homeland Security Office of Inspector General reported in March that the federal government had spent $204 million since 2003 to hunt down and remove fugitive aliens from the United States but had shown little success in slowing down a burgeoning number of aliens hiding across the country.
At the time, the inspector general's office said more than 623,000 fugitive aliens or "absconders" were loose on the streets of American cities and towns, up from 331,000 after the September 11 attacks and 418,000 in 2003.
Despite ICE's deployment of 50 Fugitive Operations Teams nationwide with the "immediate mission" of eliminating the growing backlog of fugitive aliens, Inspector General Richard L. Skinner said the fugitive alien population was "growing at a rate that exceeds the teams' ability to apprehend."
In a report, Mr. Skinner said the backlog of fugitive aliens increased an average of 51,228 each year over a four-year period ending September 2005 and that from October 2005 to August 2006, the number jumped by 86,648.
The 68-page report said the effectiveness of fugitive teams was hampered by insufficient detention capacity, limitations of an immigration database and inadequate working space.
It also found that the teams were asked to perform duties unrelated to fugitive operations, contrary to ICE policy. Those duties included serving as firearms instructors, juvenile coordinators and jail inspectors; escorting aliens to their country of origin or from local jails to an ICE facility; taking bonds; escorting special-interest aliens to court appearances; and managing the detained and non-detained dockets.
Mrs. Myers said that to apprehend more fugitive aliens, ICE has expanded the number of Fugitive Operations Teams from 18 in 2005 to 61 today and that by the end of fiscal 2007 in October, 75 teams will be deployed throughout the United States.
She said ICE removed more than 17,817 fugitive aliens from the United States during fiscal 2006 and that the agency is on its way to "doubling that number" for fiscal 2007.
Mrs. Myers said ICE opened the Fugitive Operation Support Center in Vermont last June to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the agency's National Fugitive Operations Program. She said the support center reviews and updates absconder cases, develops leads for and provides assistance to the teams and aids in the development of national fugitive operations.