Teams of federal immigration agents are knocking on doors, canvassing jails and prisons and hitting job sites nationwide as part of the Clinton administration’s unprecedented push to track down and expel immigrants--both illegal and legal--who are subject to deportation.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service expects to deport 93,000 people during the current fiscal year--35% more than last year’s record pace. One-third of 1997 deportees resided in Southern California.
A significant number of these deportations are taking place from Orange County, INS officials say, although statistics are not gathered by area.
“We have a [deportation] program currently under way at the Orange County Jail, and routinely at the Anaheim city jail,” said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the INS regional office in Laguna Niguel. “We are seeing a lot of removals from Orange County.”
The INS has significantly increased the number of sweeps it makes of Orange County work sites suspected of employing illegal immigrants. “We have stepped up our work-site enforcement,” Kice said. “We have a very active program here.”
All of which has raised some red flags in the county’s immigrant community.
Jess J. Araujo, general counsel for the Mexican Consulate in Santa Ana, says the number of calls from immigrants worried about being deported has tripled in the last four months--from about six a week to 15 or 20. “This is as bad as I’ve seen it in the last 20 years,” Araujo said. “I personally believe that [the deportation program is] a little overreaching.”
Federal officials have long targeted illegal immigrants in the immediate U.S.-Mexico border area. But the aggressive use of formal deportation procedures underscores an evolving new priority: tracking down noncitizens and deporting them because they committed crimes here or ignored past deportation orders.
Huge numbers of illegal immigrants ordered deported have eluded detection and melded into the population. They are now considered fugitives.
In Orange County and surrounding areas, a year-old deportation task force armed with arrest warrants regularly hits the streets just after dawn. Its target: some of the region’s estimated 30,000 fugitives from deportation. Many longtime illegal immigrants are awakening to the din of INS agents with warrants for their arrests rousting them from their beds.
“I hardly had time to get dressed,” said a distraught Olinda Chong Rojas, a 30-year-old mother of four who spoke in the INS lockup in downtown Los Angeles shortly after being arrested for deportation back to her native Guatemala.
INS agents arrived at Chong’s East Los Angeles apartment at 6 a.m. recently. She was told to pack a bag for her trip back to Guatemala. Like many now facing expulsion, Chong was previously denied political asylum and ordered deported. But, as is usually the case, Chong did not surrender to INS authorities as ordered.
As few as 1 in 10 people with deportation orders actually turn themselves in to the INS, the agency says.
Chong’s 2-year-old daughter, Yajaira, a U.S. citizen by birth, accompanied her mother back to a land the girl had never seen.
“I wanted something better for my daughter, for all my children,” said the tearful Chong, who earned $600 a month here as a housekeeper, sending half of it back to her three other children, ages 4, 5 and 8, who remained in Guatemala. “Now I’m going back with nothing in my pocket. Everything I’ve worked for--all my dreams of a better life for my family--all that has been shattered.”
Until recently, the INS has lacked the time and resources to look for people like Chong. But huge funding increases--the INS annual budget has more than doubled in the past four years, to $3.1 billion--have resulted in both greatly bolstered deportation staff and expanded detention space.
The deportation push has also resulted in heightened anxiety in some ethnic neighborhoods of Southern California, where the nation’s largest concentration of illegal immigrants has come to feel relatively secure. Some fear a return to the days when INS agents routinely roamed the streets, detaining those who appeared suspect--a practice largely abandoned more than a decade ago in the face of public pressure.
Rudy Moreno, who teaches English as a second language at Santa Ana’s Rancho Santiago Community College, says that increasing numbers of students report being picked up by the INS.
“Even some who have been here a long time are feeling the threat,” Moreno said. “It’s very dehumanizing.”
“This kind of activity can destroy a whole community,” said Father Dennis P. O’Neil, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, which draws its congregation from L.A.'s Pico-Union and Koreatown neighborhoods--home to the country’s most concentrated Central American community.
But federal officials stress that the current actions are targeted--focusing on criminals and fugitives who have exhausted all appeals and were ordered deported.
“There is no plan to design efforts to make sweeps through neighborhoods, which would cause great alarm and fear,” said Brian Jordan, an INS spokesman in Washington.
Last month, President Clinton assured a summit of worried Central American presidents that “mass deportations” were not in the offing.
In some quarters, the deportation push is lauded as a long-overdue response to runaway illegal immigration. According to official statistics, almost 300,000 new illegal immigrants settle in the United States each year--far outstripping even current deportation numbers.
In fact, many in Congress and elsewhere would like to see the INS put even more effort into finding and arresting some of the 5 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.
“The Clinton administration has fallen steadily behind on a fast-moving treadmill,” said U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who heads the House immigration subcommittee.
In their new push, INS officers are aggressively going after people with deportation orders, using high-technology aids. Because many addresses are out of date, agents are cross-checking motor vehicle lists, credit records and other databases, while also interviewing relatives and neighbors and hitting workplaces. Computers have allowed teams of agents here to converge on fugitives from deportation in specific ZIP codes, thus saving travel time.
“This is definitely a priority for us,” said Leonard Kovensky, the INS deportation chief in Los Angeles, whose previous INS postings in Athens and Moscow involved quite different tasks: processing refugees for entry into the United States.
Frequently, agents with deportation warrants encounter families with mixed immigration statuses, typically cases like that of the Chong family: undocumented parents with U.S.-citizen children. Parents in that predicament are given the option of leaving their offspring behind with relatives or loved ones.
Also being swept up in the widening dragnet are increasing numbers of legal immigrants who are subject to deportation because of criminal pasts. The new immigration law passed by Congress last year greatly widened the kinds of criminal activity that render legal immigrant noncitizens subject to “removal,” as deportation is now known, including spousal abuse and many categories of theft and document fraud.
“I never thought this would happen to me,” said a stunned Johnny Constantin, a 29-year-old Romanian legal immigrant who was in deportation proceedings in Los Angeles last week after INS agents plucked him from jail because of a previous conviction for methamphetamine possession.
As a criminal, Constantin is the INS’ stated first priority for arrest and deportation.
Today, an INS team maintains a 24-hour presence at the Los Angeles County Jail, where about 5,000 inmates have been arrested and put into expulsion proceedings since last October. In some cases, immigration judges are even hearing prison inmates’ cases while they complete their sentences, thus assuring speedy expulsion once their time is completed.
According to the INS, about 55% of the 42,426 people deported nationwide in the first six months of fiscal 1997 had criminal records. The Clinton administration, constantly assailed by Republicans as soft on illegal immigration, has touted the escalating deportation numbers.
In coming months and years, the number of people facing deportation is expected to grow dramatically--as is the likelihood that they will be apprehended if they do not surrender.
Fidelia Flores, a 41-year-old travel agent from the Philippines, knows her time may be running out.
Flores, who has been fighting deportation for a dozen years, contends that it would cause great hardship to her U.S.-born son and daughter and to her husband, a naturalized U.S. citizen. Her deportation is currently stayed while the U.S. Court of Appeals decides whether it even has authority under the new law to review her case and many others like it, said her attorney, Carl Shusterman of Los Angeles.
“My life is here with my family, not in the Philippines,” Flores said during an interview at her attorney’s office. “If I’m deported, what will happen to my family?”