WASHINGTON – More than 300,000 illegal immigrants who have been ordered deported remain at large in the United States, roughly the same number as in December 2001 when the government began a campaign to capture them.
Immigration and Naturalization Service officials said some of the original illegal immigrants on the list have been deported, and have been replaced by others who go underground rather than be returned to their home countries.
But the bulk of the immigrants originally named have not been caught.
A smaller group of about 6,000 immigrants were given special attention because they are from countries considered at risk for terrorism. Of those, just over 1,100 have been captured and deported, INS spokesman Bill Strassberger said Thursday.
Then-INS Commissioner James Ziglar announced to Congress in December 2001 that the agency would enter the names of some 314,000 illegal immigrants into the National Crime Information Center database used by police across the country.
The theory was that police might catch more of the immigrants who fled before they could be deported by running their names through computers when they are stopped for such things as traffic tickets. The program continues but the number still at large still exceeds 300,000, Strassberger said.
INS officials say they never envisioned sending out teams of agents to track down such a large number, first reported Thursday by The San Diego Union-Tribune. There are roughly 7 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
"We just don't have the resources to do that," Strassberger said. "The intention of the program was to put their names into the NCIC database."
Most of those being sought have committed some sort of administrative violation, such as overstaying a tourist visa, and have not committed a crime. Strassberger said that in some cases, those on the list to be deported are allowed to remain in this country if they get paperwork in order and get the agency's approval.
The INS has been under heavy criticism for months for its failures in tracking people who enter this country. On the other hand, it has also encountered criticism for a new program to photograph and fingerprint thousands of mostly Muslim men in a bid to improve its record.
The Justice Department has also tightened screening of U.S. visitors at the border and questioned universities around the country about their foreign students.