June 20 —, 2007 -- A staggering number of fugitive aliens are in the United States, but an increase in federal raids and prosecutions have brought the number down for the first time since 2003, when the federal government began tracking the numbers after the creation of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
Fugitive aliens are typically people in the United States illegally who have ignored their final deportation orders. The number of those individuals has grown steadily over the last several years, at an average rate of about 68,000 per year -- or more than 5,600 per month.
The total backlog of fugitive aliens has soared to more than 630,000. But over the last two months, the number actually dropped by 500, according to ICE.
"ICE has been working aggressively to improve the systems that help us identify, target and remove fugitive aliens from the United States," said Julie Myers, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for ICE.
The agency tripled the number of its Fugitive Operation Teams, groups that find and arrest individuals identified as fugitive aliens, from 18 teams in 2005 to its present 61. ICE plans to add 14 more teams by the end of September.
Additionally, ICE opened a support center in June 2005 to improve the efficiency in processing case files. Also that month, ICE launched a partnership with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to identify illegal aliens serving time in the prison system. The partnership, ICE says, cleared a backlog and allowed the government to deport aliens immediately after release from prison.
ICE also credits the decline to ending its "catch-and-release" practice and stepping up aggressive apprehension efforts. Under catch-and-release authorities would arrest illegal immigrants, then release them from custody pending their deportation hearings.
The practice was heavily criticized as ineffective, because illegal immigrants routinely failed to appear at their hearings. They'd keep their illegal status and remain in the United States.
ICE says before the catch-and-release policy ended in September 2006, only 34 percent of non-Mexican illegal immigrants arrested along the border were held in custody.
ICE lauded the expansion of detention facilities, allowing the government to keep those arrested in lockup until their deportation proceedings began. In addition, expedited deportation proceedings and reduced processing time -- from 90 days to 30 days -- contributed to the deportation of a record 186,000 individuals during the 2006 fiscal year. Of those, 17,817 were identified as fugitive aliens.