Going After Absconders

Anthony Tangeman doesn't mince words: "Look, we've got 400,000 alien absconders, and we don't know where they are." Tangeman, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau's director of detention and removals, views those illegal immigrants with suspicion. "You've got to think that among this population there are some people who don't like the U.S.," he says.

For years, absconders-illegal immigrants who flee after receiving final deportation orders-have exploited gaping holes in the U.S. immigration system. Because ICE lacks funds to detain many aliens during removal proceedings, they can skip immigration hearings and ignore a judge's order to leave the country. In a February 2003 report, the Justice Department inspector general found that immigration officials removed just 13 percent of nondetained aliens with final orders. Inside ICE, the orders are known as "run letters."

"For those aliens we don't detain, the removal percentage is abysmal," admits Tangeman. But he and other homeland security officials say they are poised to make a dent in the absconder backlog. Tangeman's office received a $108.2 million funding hike in the Bush administration's fiscal 2005 budget proposal, enough to hire an additional 357 immigration enforcement agents. ICE has formed 18 fugitive operations teams, whose sole mission is to pursue absconders. And to stem the growth of the absconder pool, which increases by 40,000 people annually, ICE is testing new methods to keep tabs on those it can't detain.

Last summer, ICE began using electronic ankle bracelets to monitor illegal immigrants in Anchorage, Alaska; Detroit; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; and Miami with the intention that bracelets would compel them to show up for immigration court hearings. So far, most have. Of the roughly 400 aliens being monitored, just five have absconded to date, according to Tangeman.

But ankle bracelets are no panacea. "What we're learning is that [using bracelets is] very labor-intensive," says Tangeman. "Every time someone doesn't make his curfew, it requires us to physically check up on the individual." Electronic monitoring is just one of several supervision methods that will be used in a contractor-run program set to start in eight cities this year. Tangeman expects the winning firm will tap local immigrant organizations and church groups to help supervise aliens released from ICE custody.

Other experiments are aimed at plugging holes in the detention process. Deportation officials generally do not attend immigration hearings, meaning those who receive deportation orders are allowed to walk right out of the courtroom. From August to October, ICE detained all aliens who received final orders in Hartford, Conn., immediately following their immigration hearing. The tactic yielded mixed results. Of 500 cases, just 40 aliens were detained after their hearings.

"As word of the program spread, people who feared they wouldn't win their case wouldn't appear, or they fled," says Michael Boyle, president of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. One immigrant fled the courthouse during a restroom break, according to Boyle. Tangeman says immigration lawyers asked to postpone hearings once they learned the program would end in October. ICE will carry out similar programs in two larger cities, which Tangeman declined to name.

Many of ICE's current reforms have their roots in the late 1990s. In 1996, Congress gave the old Immigration and Naturalization Service $11.2 million to round up absconders. But seven years later, INS officials could not tell the Justice inspector general how the money was spent.

Insiders credit Tangeman, who spent 30 years in the Coast Guard before joining the INS in 2000, for finally focusing immigration officials on the absconder problem. "Tony invested a lot of time in developing a strategic plan to get at this," says a senior homeland security official.

Yet challenges abound. Electronic monitoring has come under fire from immigrant advocates who view it as intrusive. Despite the funding boost, Tangeman's office is still seen as understaffed. More funding would be needed to end the government's "catch and release" policy, which discharges thousands of illegal immigrants from Central and South American countries into U.S. border towns each year because ICE cannot afford to detain them. The practice is of particular concern to Robert Bonner, commissioner of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, whose Border Patrol agents round up the aliens.

Down the road, Tangeman intends to immediately detain all illegal immigrants who receive final orders, taking the Hartford proj-ect nationwide. "I'll be quite honest with you, we will have a requirement for mandatory detention for people with final orders of removal," he says. "Right now, we don't have the bed space to detain everyone. But that's where we're going to go." Of course, this hinges on getting aliens to show up for their hearings. But Tangeman says it can happen. "When I got here the focus was detention, detention, detention. Detention is not our mission. Our mission is removal," he says. "We're changing the culture."

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