Report: 600,000 Illegal Immigrants Still in U.S. Despite Orders to Leave

Teams assigned to make sure foreigners facing departure orders actually leave United States have a backlog of more than 600,000 cases and cannot accurately account for the fugitives' whereabouts, the government reported.

The report by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general found that the effectiveness of teams assigned to find the fugitives was hampered by "insufficient detention capacity, limitations of an immigration database and inadequate working space."

Even though more than $204 million was allocated for 52 fugitive operations teams since 2003, a backlog of 623,292 cases existed as of August 2006, the report said.

The number of illegal immigrants in the United States has been estimated at between 11.5 million and 12 million. About 5.4 percent of them are believed to be "fugitive aliens," those who have not obeyed orders to leave the country.

The inspector general found there is too little bed space available to detain such fugitives, and agents are hampered by an inaccurate database. Another factor that limits the teams' effectiveness is insufficient staffing, the report said.

Until the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, attempts to catch such fugitives were carried out mostly by teams not exclusively devoted to the task. After the attacks, an Absconder Apprehension Initiative was created within the Justice Department to find, catch and deport such immigrants. When the Homeland Security Department was created in March 2003, it assumed responsibility.

Plans for the new office stated that it aimed to eliminate the case backlog by the end of 2012, although a field manual put the timetable at 2009, the report said.

Yet "despite the efforts of the teams, the backlog of fugitive alien cases has increased each fiscal year since the program was established in February 2002," the inspector general said.

The report said the weekly field office reports sent to headquarters do not accurately reflect what the teams have done. Sometimes they include apprehensions made by other federal, state or local enforcement agencies. The reports might also include cases closed because of an immigrant's death, voluntary departure or change to legal status.

"The current reporting system does not provide a means by which managers can assess teams' performance," the inspector general concluded. That makes it impossible to determine if the teams are meeting their goals, the report said.