Return to Sender

Mark Pilat took a deep breath, braced himself and knocked on the door. A deportation officer with the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency--that's "ICE" in Fed lingo--Pilat and his team converged on a sprawling trailer park outside Columbus, Ohio, last week. The park is a haven for illegal aliens, but the ICE team wasn't there to round up undocumented immigrants en masse. Instead, they were after one man: a 30-year-old Mexican national--a known felon who was considered armed and dangerous.

The startled teenager who answered the knock hesitantly agreed to let the visitors in. Pilat, flanked by another agent wielding a Remington shotgun, quickly swept inside. Within seconds, the cramped trailer was jammed with other members of the ICE Fugitive Operations team. But their target wasn't home. Pilat turned to the nervous youngster, grilling him in Spanish. "What country are you from? How old are you? Do you have immigration papers?"

Pilat determined the young man was in the country illegally. A "collateral" catch, he was cuffed and locked in a caged van outside. Within 48 hours, the 19-year-old from Guanajuato, Mexico, was placed on an ICE plane to Texas with dozens of other captured illegals, where he was bused across the border and turned over to the Mexican authorities. For Pilat, it was a fine way to start the day. A 40-year-old former Immigration desk supervisor who gave up nearly $30,000 in pay to join Fugitive Ops, Pilat is proud of his part in the immigration wars. "I think this is going to be the future of immigration enforcement," he told NEWSWEEK.

He may be right. The immigration debate in Washington and the rest of the country has largely focused on securing the borders to keep illegals out. Much less known are the efforts of Pilat and other full-time agents like him, who crisscross the country searching for and deporting those who are already here. The ICE Fugitive Ops teams are a growing force. At the start of 2006, there were 18 of them. That number has now more than doubled, to 38. By the end of this year there will be 52 teams, totaling more than 300 federal agents. The official purpose of the program is to provide "interior enforcement" of U.S. immigration laws. But Robin Baker, head of the program's Detroit field office, voiced another, unofficial goal: to put undocumented immigrants on notice, and on edge. "We are going to send a message," Baker told agents at an early-morning briefing last week at the Columbus Police Academy. "We're going to start restoring integrity to the nation's immigration system."

It's no secret that ICE is almost comically outnumbered. There are an estimated 12 million undocumented residents in the country right now. "This place is loaded," Baker said, surveying the Ohio trailer park. "We could probably arrest a couple of thousand people in an hour if we wanted to. But we don't do that, we do targeted arrests." The targets are an estimated 590,000 illegal immigrants who have been designated as "fugitive aliens"--foreign nationals who either failed to appear for a scheduled Immigration hearing or ignored an Immigration judge's orders to leave the country. ICE estimates that 50,000 to 75,000 fugitive aliens are also "criminal aliens" convicted of local, state or federal offenses. Those are the team's priority targets. "The people we are going after have already had their day in court," said John Torres, acting director of ICE's Detention and Removal Operations.

Last week, as Operation Return to Sender got underway in Ohio, agents fanned out across the state in search of 220 fugitive aliens. Each team carried paper profiles of their suspects with whatever information they could gather from court records--name, last known address, sometimes a picture. The agents were especially cautious in approaching some doors. Several of the targets had been convicted in the past of violent crimes. One of the men arrested was a Salvadoran MS-13 gang member with a conviction for carrying a concealed weapon. But all too often, the ICE teams left without their man. In many of those cases, as in the trailer park, whoever was unlucky enough to answer the door would get hauled away instead. Even when they found their targets, the results were sometimes wrenching. One target, a 32-year-old Mauritanian man ordered out of the country in 2000, was enjoying the World Cup match between Italy and France one minute, and scrambling to explain his immigration status the next. "I don't have all these things!" he protested when Pilat asked for his passport. As his tearful wife, a naturalized citizen, cradled the couple's 2-year-old American-born son, the man was hustled out of the family's apartment and into a van. Marc Raimondi, a DHS spokesman, knows stories like this one can make the department seem hardhearted. "But if he had left the country when he was supposed to," he says, "he wouldn't even have that kid."

Several times during the two-day operation, ICE officers chose not to arrest people they could have. At one house bustling with Salvadoran immigrants who had come to patronize a makeshift barbershop in the basement, the team arrested three men without papers, but instructed a woman, eight months pregnant and in the United States illegally, to report to the local Immigration office instead (knowing she probably never would). At another home, where a Salvadoran man with permission to be in the country lived with his undocumented wife and three undocumented children, Baker also told the mother and children to report to the local Immigration office. "I could take the kids now, I could take the mother now, but I'm not going to do that," Baker told NEWSWEEK. Instead, the team tried to focus on what Baker called "the bad guys."

In the end, the Ohio effort succeeded in rounding up at least some of them. Between July 9 and July 14, Operation Return to Sender made 154 arrests of illegal immigrants from 30 countries. But 86 of them were so-called collaterals--people other than the ones the agents were looking for. Nationwide, ICE says, it has arrested 33,343 fugitive aliens since the program started in 2003. Of them, they say, more than 20,000 had criminal records.

Not everyone is impressed with the stats. Some skeptics say the program is little more than an election-year public-relations stunt that allows Washington politicians to claim they're doing something about the problem. "It's not a bad thing that they're doing this," says Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors tighter immigration restrictions. "But if you're deporting one sixtieth of 1 percent of illegals, and you increase that number to one thirtieth of 1 percent, are you really addressing the problem? They're never going to catch up." The illegals still on Mark Pilat's target list can only hope Stein is right.