Immigration enforcement teams who target criminals and fugitives increased their arrests of illegal immigrants more than sevenfold in Central and South Texas during the past fiscal year, says the Austin American-Statesman. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said that for the first time since records have been kept, the nation’s fugitive immigrant population is on the decline. Arrests across the U.S. almost doubled as the agency stepped up crackdowns and deployed more enforcement teams. The agency classifies as fugitives people who are in the country illegally and have failed to appear for immigration hearings or leave the country despite a judge’s order. Though arrests whittled down the fugitive case backlog by 38,000, nearly 600,000 illegal immigrants termed fugitives remain in the U.S.
An estimated 12 million illegal immigrants live and work in the U.S. Some immigrant rights groups question whether all those accused of immigration violations have actually received their final orders to leave the country, and they object to so-called collateral arrests of immigrants who are neither criminals nor fugitives from the law. An ICE official said that with rare exceptions, enforcement agents have a duty to arrest all illegal immigrants they encounter in their investigations, even if they are not their principal targets. Critics like Austin immigration attorney Dan Kowalski said that although they support efforts to go after criminals, they object to ICE’s use of the terms “fugitives” and “absconders.” “As far as I know, most of the people they call fugitives are not running or hiding. They are living, working, going about their daily business and hoping they don’t get caught,” said Kowalski, editor of Bender’s Immigration Bulletin, a national journal for immigration lawyers. He questioned whether fugitive teams are having a significant effect in reducing illegal immigration.