NEW YORK -- In the two years since Congress passed tough laws to stem the flow of illegal immigration to the United States, federal authorities have deported almost 300,000 immigrants to countries all over the world, more than twice the number of people who were sent back in the two years before.
The unprecedented number of deportations has been possible because for the first time the Immigration and Naturalization Service has both the congressional mandate and the money to investigate and prosecute violators of immigration law, arrest immigrants with criminal convictions and would-be immigrants at the border and swiftly deport them from the United States -- sometimes in fewer than 12 hours.
Many of the immigrants who are deported are barred from returning to the country for five years or more. Some are barred for life.
"The rules have changed," said Kerry Bretz, a Manhattan immigration lawyer who is a former prosecutor for the INS. "The agency has become completely enforcement-minded."
Flush with almost $1 billion earmarked for the detention and deportation of immigrants, the INS is now the largest federal law enforcement agency, the Justice Department says. The immigration service has more than 15,000 officers authorized to carry weapons and make arrests, more than the FBI, the Bureau of Prisons, the Customs Service or the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"It is as if, suddenly, war had been declared on immigrants," said Maria Jimenez, director of the Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project of the American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit organization in Houston that documents abuses on the U.S.-Mexico border. "Stopping immigrants from entering the country has become more important than the war against drugs."
Before the law was changed, most of those deported had been convicted of crimes. Now, most are people who do not have criminal records but are caught at the southwest border attempting to enter the country with no documents or with fake documents.
About 78,000 immigrants who had managed to sneak into the country undetected only to be caught later were also deported in the last two years. They were arrested during job raids, at routine traffic stops, at airports while returning from abroad and even at immigration offices around the country, where immigrants often go to seek services and sometimes end up under arrest to await deportation.
Many had lived here for years, working, paying taxes, studying and establishing families. Their deportation often causes a great deal of emotional pain and financial distress to the families left behind.
The family of Fernando Giraldo, one of the illegal immigrants deported last year, is still trying to get him back to New York City.
Giraldo, a 36-year-old amateur poet from Colombia, sneaked into the United States through the southwest border a decade ago. The authorities detained him at the airport in El Paso, Texas, as he was about to board a plane. An immigration judge ordered him to leave the country in 30 days and released him on bond.
But Giraldo ignored the judge's decision and flew to New York to join his family in Brooklyn. For nine years, he went undetected by the authorities.
His luck ran out one morning in the summer of 1997. Giraldo had gone to the downtown Manhattan immigration office for a scheduled interview with an immigration officer, one of the steps in his quest for permanent residency. He said he was sure the meeting would conclude with a handshake and a stamp on his Colombian passport, making him a legal resident of the United States.
Instead, Giraldo was arrested, handcuffed and sent to a detention center in Queens. Less than 48 hours later, he was on a plane to Bogota.
Pub Date: 12/15/98