By DANIELLE ULMAN, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON (Dec. 7, 007) - Federal agents seized 924 illegal immigrants in Maryland in a special crackdown on fugitive and criminal immigrants during fiscal year 2007, officials said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement created the Fugitive Operations Program to track down undocumented immigrants who fail to comply with immigration court rulings or do not appear for immigration hearings, said Ernestine Fobbs, an ICE public affairs officer for Maryland.
Other arrests of undocumented immigrants were made in Maryland during fiscal 2007, but they are not included in the 924 apprehended in the fugitive effort.
The Baltimore field office, which covers the state, has two teams of agents "who go out looking for these individuals," Fobbs said.
Suspected sexual predators and gang members are high on the most-wanted list.
"There most definitely is a priority for anyone who is a criminal alien and anyone who is a threat to national security," she said.
Agents arrested 78 "criminal aliens" in Maryland in the last fiscal year. Nationwide, federal agents arrested more than 30,000 illegal immigrants in fiscal 2007, which ended Sept. 30, nearly double the number arrested in fiscal 2006, according to a report released by immigration officials Tuesday.
Increasing the number of teams dedicated to targeting fugitive immigrants from 52 in fiscal 2006 to 75 in fiscal 2007 "naturally contributed to the number of arrests made," Fobbs said.
Illegal immigrants detained in Maryland in specialized sweeps increased by 36 percent in fiscal 2007 since the previous fiscal year.
Of those detained, 555 illegal immigrants were removed from the country, most likely to their native countries, Fobbs said.
More than 200 people arrested were nonfugitives, and Fobbs said they could appear in immigration court or choose to return home on their own.
"Some of them say, 'You're right, I'm here illegally, and I'll just go home.' Some choose to go through the system," she said.
A new study from the Center for Immigration Studies estimates that 268,000 illegal immigrants live in Maryland.
While Fobbs said she did not have data on which parts of Maryland had the most arrests, some counties were more likely to have a large number of detainees.
"Most of them are going to be in the urban areas of suburban Maryland, like Montgomery County, Prince George's County and the Baltimore area," she said. "But not all of them are there."
In Maryland, there are a variety of opinions about the illegal immigration issue. Takoma Park is a sanctuary city, and has relegated the federal government to taking care of policing immigration.
"I guess I have mixed feelings," said Bruce Williams, Takoma Park's mayor. "I feel like we as locals have said this is a federal issue, the feds should deal with it."
The immigration system makes it difficult for undocumented immigrants to change their legal status because it requires them to return to their native countries to file paperwork and then come back to the United States, Williams said.
"I'm sorry that we all have these difficulties to deal with and I feel for the people who are here," he said. "I also feel like the feds need to do their job according to the law. I just wish that people of good will could put their heads together and start to work through this."
Brad Botwin, director of Help Save Maryland, an anti-illegal immigration group, said, "Due to a lack of resources at ICE, they're going after the biggest and the baddest," with this crackdown.
Botwin would like to see an even larger effort to nab undocumented immigrants by having local police trained by ICE agents, he said.
"We'd also like county police and sheriffs to screen prisoners to see if they are here legally or not," Botwin said.
The Fugitive Operations Program was established in 2003 to reduce the backlog of immigration fugitives nationwide. It captured just 1,900 people that year.
There are now 595,000 fugitive immigrants in the United States, 38,000 fewer than immigration officials recorded in fiscal 2006.