By GIOVANNA DELL'ORTO
Associated Press Writer
MABLETON, Georgia- "Police! Policia! Open the door!" shouted the Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, as their loud banging on the door shut up a chorus of crickets on a pine-ringed road in this Atlanta suburb.
They were searching for a man from El Salvador who came legally to this country but was ordered deported after violating repeated drunk driving convictions.
The raid Tuesday instead resulted in the arrest of two brothers from Mexico, who say they came illegally and will likely face criminal prosecution after officers found a handgun and a rifle in the house.
The new Atlanta-based fugitive team is one of seven the immigration enforcement agency is rolling out this week across the U.S. in an effort to show Congress that it is time to focus more on legal immigration because officers are already going after those here illegally.
"If there was a way for individuals coming just to work to come out of the shadows, we could focus on those who don't want to come out and are a threat to national security and public safety," Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security Julie Myers, who's in charge of ICE, told The Associated Press.
Combined with thousands of National Guard troops at the U.S.-Mexican border and dramatic increases in the number of bed space at detention centers to reduce "catch-and-release" cases, the teams fit President George W. Bush's pledge to beef up enforcement.
They are also changing the odds for illegal immigrants who until recently ran virtually no risk of being caught after they established themselves in communities far from the border.
"Once people got here, they knew it was OK," said Charles Kuck, the vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "If (enforcement) had had this power and money for the last 10 years, we'd have a comprehensive immigration system now."
While the backlog of "fugitives" - immigrants still here after their final deportation orders - is more than half a million strong, the teams are beginning to change the perception that those orders were somehow optional.
The first highly trained, often-bilingual teams were created in 2003 and will more than triple to 52 this year, including new teams in Houston and Raleigh, North Carolina. The officers now make about 1,000 arrests each week, said ICE spokesman Marc Raimondi.
In 2003, officers arrested only 4,000 people. This year, they are up to 20,121, of which about a fifth have criminal records and 5,700 were not the target of an investigation but were found during raids, according to ICE figures.
The raids are based on detection and surveillance of those immigrants ordered deported by a judge either because they had criminal convictions or they violated their visas.
"These are individuals who had their day in court," said Larry Orton, the supervisor for a new Atlanta-based team, as he waited at dawn Tuesday for a man from Mali ordered deported in 1999 to get dressed and be escorted out of his brick suburban house. "They've had their opportunity."
The teams focus on fugitives who are threats to their communities, such as convicted drunken drivers and gang members, though they also arrest non-criminals and any other illegal immigrants they find during raids. Most are then deported within a couple weeks.
"Officers physically see the plane taking off," said Raymond Simonse, the chief of the Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina teams.
Some immigration rights advocates argue that current law makes it harder on enforcement officers because it does not distinguish between dangerous immigrants and those who might have been convicted for minor crimes like shoplifting or might never have gotten their deportation orders.
"They shouldn't waste their time going after busboys, some people are really bad out there," said Benjamin Johnson, director of the Washington-based Immigration Policy Center.
Until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, after which the immigration history of some of the hijackers made it urgent to get tough on immigration violations, many immigrants were simply ordered deported "in absentia" since they never showed up in court. Those there in person were told to report to an office to be removed later _ something few did.
"Once a judge issued an order of removal, it was an honor system," said Victor Cerda, former head of detention and removal operations for immigration enforcement. "We're light years ahead. The message is getting out there that it isn't a free ride."
The seven men arrested Tuesday in suburban Atlanta told officers they had no idea why they were being detained, even after some admitted they were in the U.S. illegally. They refused to speak with The Associated Press.
Yet a request by the man from Mali to stay in the U.S. had been denied nine years ago, one of the men who was from Guatemala was caught twice by the Border Patrol in Arizona, and another man, from El Salvador, had failed to renew his temporary protected status since 2005, according to federal records officers obtained after locking them all in a cell.
"If you're illegally in a country, there's always the expectation you could be held accountable one day," Simonse said. "There may be individuals who are seeking to make a better life, and people who recognize they've broken the law."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement: http://www.ice.gov