CBSN

Raids Round Up 'Fugitive' Immigrants

In this photo taken from video a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent takes a suspected illegal immigrant into custody after a raid on a home in Mableton, Ga., early Tuesday morning, Aug. 8, 2006. Until the fugitives teams were created in 2003, immigration officials acknowledge that the chances illegal immigrants would be caught once they established themselves in communities far from the border were virtually nil. (AP Photo/Jason Bronis)
AP Photo
At about 5 a.m., loud banging on a front door quieted a chorus of crickets on a pine-ringed road in this Atlanta suburb.

"Police! Policia! Open the door!" shouted the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

The raid, part of a new push to round up immigrants who have been ordered deported for criminal convictions or visa violations, was targeting a man from El Salvador who had repeatedly been busted on drunk driving charges.

They came away instead with two brothers from Mexico, one of whom has the same name as the fugitive, who said they came illegally and will likely face criminal prosecution after officers found a handgun and a rifle in the house.

The new Atlanta-based fugitive team is one of seven the government is rolling out this week in an effort to show Congress that officers are aggressively going after illegals.

Other Fugitive Operations teams are operating out of Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, N.J., Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Raleigh, N.C., bringing the total number of teams nationwide to 45.

The teams focus on fugitives who are threats to their communities, such as convicted drunken drivers and gang members, though they also arrest non-criminals and any other illegal immigrants they find during raids.

"These are individuals who had their day in court," said Larry Orton, the supervisor for the Atlanta-based team, as he waited at dawn Tuesday for a man from Mali, ordered deported in 1999, to get dressed and be escorted out of his brick suburban house. "They've had their opportunity."

Combined with thousands of National Guard troops at the U.S.-Mexican border and dramatic increases in bed space at detention centers, the teams fit President Bush's pledge to beef up enforcement.

They also are changing the odds for illegal immigrants, who until recently ran little risk of being caught after they established themselves in communities far from the border.

"Once a judge issued an order of removal, it was an honor system," said Victor Cerda, former head of detention and removal operations for immigration enforcement. "We're light years ahead. The message is getting out there that it isn't a free ride."

While the backlog of "fugitives" — immigrants still here after their final deportation orders — is more than half a million, the teams are beginning to change the perception that those orders were somehow optional.

The first highly trained, often-bilingual teams were created in 2003 and will more than triple to 52 this year. The officers now make about 1,000 arrests each week, said spokesman Marc Raimondi.

In 2003, officers arrested only 4,000 people. This year, they're up to 20,121, of which about a fifth have criminal records and 5,700 were not the target of an investigation but were found during raids, according to government figures.

Some immigration rights advocates argue that current law makes it harder on enforcement officers because it doesn't distinguish between dangerous immigrants and those who might have been convicted for minor crimes like shoplifting or might never have gotten deportation orders.

"They shouldn't waste their time going after busboys. Some people are really bad out there," said Benjamin Johnson, director of the Washington-based Immigration Policy Center.

The seven men arrested Tuesday in suburban Atlanta — only the one from Mali had been a target — told officers they had no idea why they were being detained, even after some admitted they were in the U.S. illegally. They refused to speak with The Associated Press.

The Mali man's request to stay in the United States had been denied nine years ago, according to federal records. One of the men who was from Guatemala was caught twice by the Border Patrol in Arizona. Another man, from El Salvador, had failed to renew his temporary protected status since 2005.

"If you're illegally in a country, there's always the expectation you could be held accountable one day," said Raymond Simonse, the chief of the Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina teams. "There may be individuals who are seeking to make a better life, and people who recognize they've broken the law."