Teams Track Fugitive Immigrants for Deportation

Marcelo Lozano i i

Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrest Marcelo Lozano at his San Fernando Valley home. The 59-year-old Mexican was convicted of a sex crime 20 years ago and absconded from deportation orders. Mandalit del Barco/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mandalit del Barco/NPR
Marcelo Lozano

Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrest Marcelo Lozano at his San Fernando Valley home. The 59-year-old Mexican was convicted of a sex crime 20 years ago and absconded from deportation orders.

Mandalit del Barco/NPR
ICE Agent Eric Saldana

ICE agent Eric Saldana is debriefed by other fugitive ops team agents before making early morning arrests. Mandalit del Barco/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mandalit del Barco/NPR

Federal authorities say that more than half a million immigrants currently living in the United States have been ordered deported but are still living here. Among them are convicted criminals who've absconded from their deportation orders. Now, a bigger effort is being made to round them up with special strike teams that are hitting the streets in places such as Los Angeles.

The moonlight shines down on a small American flag outside Marcelo Lozano's suburban townhouse in the San Fernando Valley. It's not quite 5 a.m., and a team of immigration agents is at his front door. Lozano answers the knocks, groggy from sleep, and offers no resistance. The agents lead him out in handcuffs and chains. The past is finally catching up for this 59-year-old Mexican immigrant who was convicted 20 years ago.

"He's what we would consider a predator case. He's got a child molestation charge in the past. So he's definitely one of our high-priority targets," says Eric Saldana, an agent with ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Driving to the next location, he explains that there are now four ICE teams in Los Angeles dedicated to tracking down and deporting immigrants who are considered fugitives.

"We're targeting the worst of the worst right now," he says. "On a weekly or biweekly basis, we're constantly going after people that have been convicted of murder, crimes involving firearms, sex crimes. Those people have done some pretty heinous things in the past, and we see them all."

Saldana says his team arrests as many as six people a day, with information gathered from local police, sheriffs and agencies such as the DMV, as well as tips from neighbors and relatives. Last week alone, Los Angeles agents netted 25 convicted sex offenders, and a former Mexican state police officer wanted in connection with five murders.

But there's still a tremendous backlog of warrants for immigrants who were ordered to leave the United States, but didn't. There are literally hundreds of thousands of people who have pending cases before the immigration courts. ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice says that by the end of the year, her agency will have 52 fugitive operations teams across the country.

"In the wake of 9/11, with support of Congress, we are able to establish these teams," she says, adding that there was "a recognition that the absconder population was steadily growing , that it exceeded half a million people. And that was considered a travesty. Why do we have a system of immigration courts if, in fact, these orders are never going to be enforced?"

At later stops this morning, agents round up two Filipinos, both convicted felons who've been on the run for years. Along with Marcelo Lozano, they're driven to a detention center in Santa Ana, to be photographed, fingerprinted and eventually deported. While he waits, Lozano muses about how he came to the United States in 1971, illegally crossing the border in Tijuana.

Lozano says it has been 20 years since he was arrested for repeatedly molesting one of his daughters. By then, he had a green card and was working in construction. Lozano was sentenced to 60 months' probation. But it wasn't until the 1990s that Congress passed laws making his a deportable crime. Lozano did go to jail for four months, but never showed up in court to be deported. That's how he became a fugitive.

"I've been expecting this," he says as he sits in handcuffs.

So, what took so long? ICE agent Eric Saldana says there's a different answer for every fugitive immigrant.

"It could have been they were released on bond and they absconded from the bond," Saldana explains. "There's times when people will go from a county facility to a state facility to another county facility. Those computer systems don't talk to each other."

In the hope of reducing the number of fugitive convicts who fall through the cracks, ICE spokesperson Kice says her agency is making a greater effort to monitor all immigrants who are convicted felons.

We're using telephonic voice recognition reporting system, we're using ankle bracelets," she says. "We now have these fugitive operations teams. If they fail to comply with the court order, there's a very real possibility one morning there's going to be a knock at their door."

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