The Bush administration is inviting people who have ignored orders to leave the country to surrender at immigration offices and leave voluntarily, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official said Wednesday.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is launching "Operation Scheduled Departure" on Aug. 5 in the cities of Santa Ana, Calif.; San Diego; Phoenix; Chicago and Charlotte, N.C., said spokeswoman Cori Bassett. The program will end Aug. 22.
People who have been ordered to leave the country but remain in the U.S. and have not committed a crime can participate, Bassett said.
"Those folks will be able to walk into an ICE office and say I'm here and I want to go home," Bassett said. They will not be jailed as most people are who are arrested because they are believed to be in the country illegally, she said. They will not be required to wear tracking devices, she said.
Jim Hayes, the acting ICE detention and removal director, said some 572,000 people in the country have final deportation orders but have not committed a crime.
Bassett said the people who take advantage of the program will get up to 90 days to pull together money to pay for family members to return home with them, attend to older parents or take care of any other arrangements.
Hayes said people with deportation orders who have previously surrendered to ICE usually need a month to 40 days to square away family affairs.
ICE Director Julie Myers first announced the program on an Univision Sunday news program, but did not provide full details.
Myers' comments were translated into Spanish. In the translated interview on the Univision Web site, she said the program would be an organized way for people to self deport, especially if immigrants fear ICE might come to their home or show up at their workplace.
She said people could show up to ICE offices with passports and documents.
Hayes said the idea came from advocates who have said people would show up if given the chance to surrender. "We hope the advocacy groups back up what they told us," he said.
But the idea was quickly criticized. Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration advocacy group America's Voice, said it was not a serious proposal, reminiscent of a "Saturday Night Live" sketch.
"The idea that millions of people are going to knock on the government's door and ask to be deported is pure fantasy. This is not a solution; this is mass deportation on the cheap, and it just won't work."
Hayes said ICE has 104 "fugitive alien" teams that are highly successful.
ICE has been conducting work and home raids to track down people it believes are in the country illegally. Those raids have drawn praise from anti-immigration backers and criticism from immigration advocates.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff promised to step up immigration enforcement after Congress failed to pass an immigration reform bill last year.
Hayes denied that the voluntary departure program was designed to increase the numbers of immigrants removed from the country or as a political move in the midst of the presidential election where immigration remains a volatile issue.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus separately called on President Bush to end the ICE raids after hearing stories from children and families in Postville, Iowa, where the agency carried out one of the largest raids in U.S. history at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plan.
"We need to end these raids. These raids do absolutely no good," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus planned to meet Thursday to come up with strategies on how to respond to the Iowa raid.
"It's not ICE's job to write the immigration laws," said Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., who chairs the caucus.
Also this week, New Life Covenant and others will gather a truckload of toiletries, disposable diapers and food. The group will drive the truck to Postville, pitch tents in the town Friday and distribute its goods to families of the detained immigrants, Gutierrez said.