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Backed up: More and more foreign fugitives

An unidentified Swift & Co. employee is escorted out of the Greeley Lamb Plant by Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents in Greeley, Colorado
Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents escort a man detained during a raid at a meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo., in December.  Federal agents tasked with going after foreign fugitives arrested more than 11,000 last year, but the backlog of cases grew to more than 600,000.Bret Hartman / Reuters
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Teams assigned to make sure foreigners ordered out of the United States actually leave have a growing backlog of more than 600,000 cases and can’t accurately account for the fugitives’ whereabouts, the government reported Monday.

The report by the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general found that the effectiveness of teams assigned to find the fugitives was hampered by “insufficient detention capacity, limitations of an immigration database and inadequate working space.”

Even though more than $204 million was allocated for 52 fugitive operations teams since 2003, a backlog of 623,292 cases existed as of August, the report said.

The number of illegal immigrants in the United States has been estimated at between 11.5 million and 12 million. About 5.4 percent of them are believed to be “fugitive aliens,” those who have failed to leave the country after being ordered out.

The inspector general found there is not enough bed space available to detain such fugitives and that agents are hampered by an inaccurate database. Other factors that limit the teams’ effectiveness are insufficient staffing, the report said.

Until the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, attempts to catch such fugitives were mostly carried out by teams not exclusively devoted to the task. After the attacks, the Absconder Apprehension Initiative was created within the Justice Department to find and deport fugitives. When the Homeland Security Department was created in March 2003, it assumed responsibility.

The new office aimed to eliminate the case backlog by the end of 2012, although a field manual put the timetable at 2009, the report said.

Yet “the backlog of fugitive alien cases has increased each fiscal year since the program was established in February 2002,” the inspector general said.

By the numbers
The backlog was estimated at more than 331,000 in 2001, and has grown by at least 11 percent every year since, even as funding has risen dramatically, from $9 million in 2003 to $110 million in 2006.

On the other hand, apprehensions have increased significantly as well: from 1,223 during the first six months of operation in 2003, to 11,864 in the first nine months of the 2006 fiscal year.

The report also said the weekly field office reports sent to headquarters do not accurately reflect what the teams have actually done. Sometimes they include apprehensions made by other federal, state or local law enforcement agencies. The reports might also include cases closed because of an immigrant’s death, voluntary departure from the country or being changed to legal status.

The inspector general also had praise for some areas, noting that “despite hiring obstacles, progress has been made in staffing the teams” and that “the teams have effective partnerships with federal, state, and local agencies.”

Department responds
In a written response to the inspector general, Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Julie Myers said the agency agreed with the reporting critique and that a new system had gone online at the end of last August.

As for providing resources to detain and house fugitives, Myers said Homeland Security had done all it could “within the areas directly under its control."

“Since the assessment,” she added, “Congress allotted additional funds ... which were earmarked specifically to address detention bed space.”

Marc Raimondi, spokesman for Homeland Security, added that funding for the 2007 fiscal year allows for up to 75 teams to be fielded to deal with the backlog.

“The IG report does a good job at highlighting exactly why we needed fugitive operations teams,” he said.