Voluntary Deportation Program Ends

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Operation Scheduled Departure — an experimental program designed to convince illegal immigrants to turn themselves in for voluntary deportation — ended Friday. The pilot program had operated in five cities since early August, but not many eligible immigrants availed themselves of it.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

The federal government's Scheduled Departure program ended Friday after a three-week trial period. The program invited non-criminal fugitive aliens, illegal immigrants who've ignored deportation orders, to turn themselves in. But NPR's Ted Robbins says they didn't exactly run to their nearest immigration office.

TED ROBBINS: Nearly a half-million people were eligible for Scheduled Departure. They could show up at Immigration and Customs Enforcement - ICE - offices in Phoenix, San Diego, Chicago, Charlotte or Santa Ana, California, turn themselves in, and get up to three months to get their affairs in order and leave the country. As of Friday, out of the 457,000, exactly eight took advantage. Still, director of the ICE Office of Detention and Removal Operations Jim Hayes won't call it a failure.

SIMON: It depends on how you define failure. And I think that in this instance, we've made it very clear that this was a pilot. This wasn't something that we had very high hopes for in terms of it being the answer to fugitive operations.

ROBBINS: In fact, Hayes says during the three-week program, ICE fugitive operations teams continued working.

SIMON: We made 1,300 arrests over the last three weeks.

ROBBINS: One reason ICE even offered the opportunity was to counter complaints from immigrant rights groups that stepped-up enforcement causes chaos and family disruption when people are picked up at work or home and detained. Hayes does say that he's disappointed more people did not take advantage of the program. In part, he blames immigrant rights groups for discouraging people. Kat Rodriguez is with the group Derechos Humanos, or human rights, in Tucson. She says there's a much simpler explanation for why people didn't self deport.

SIMON: They want to be with their families. And more often than not, individuals are here because they're with family, or they're here because their family is dependent on them. So if they can milk out another year, five years living in this underground way, even if they have an order of deportation, but are able to work and send money, they're going to do it.

ROBBINS: Tarik Sultan is an immigration attorney. He says the Scheduled Departure program had a fundamental flaw. It really didn't offer an advantage to the people it was aimed at.

SIMON: You know, these are people who have been free to leave voluntarily last month, six months ago, a year ago. They've always been free to go. They made the decision long ago that they weren't going to leave voluntarily.

ROBBINS: Sultan thinks the program was a publicity stunt to quell complaints of mistreatment.

SIMON: And I think that they thought, you know, let's do this. It's a little gimmicky, but at least when people complain about how they're being mistreated, we can always say, well, you had your opportunity to leave voluntarily and not be hauled off.

SIMON: Well, actually, I don't think that at all. I think that we learned a lot from the programs.

ROBBINS: What ICE's Jim Hayes says they learned is to just keep arresting people.

SIMON: This program proves that the most effective way is by doing that the way that we've been doing it within our fugitive operations.

ROBBINS: The government currently has 104 fugitive operations teams arresting people. And with increased funding from Congress, it will add more next year. As for the cost of the Scheduled Departure program, Hayes says it cost $41,000, including publicity. And he says the government saved $54,000 by not having to detain the eight people who turned themselves in. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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