MESA, Arizona- When officials arrested Monserat Avila-Ortiz in 2000 after she illegally crossed into the United States from Mexico, an immigration judge released her from custody with the understanding that she would voluntarily leave the country within 60 days.
But six years later, Avila-Ortiz was still in the U.S., living a home in Mesa, where agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement found the 39-year-old Chihuahua woman hiding in the shower of a darkened bathroom.
The agents are with the state's fugitive operations team, an investigative unit reporting to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
They target illegal immigrants like Avila-Ortiz, who are put on a fugitive operations' wanted list after they are ordered to leave the country, fail to report for deportation, and warrants are issued for their arrest.
"The problem is that so many of them blow it off," said Russell Ahr, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman. "Then, on the 61st day, there's a warrant issued for their arrest."
Most illegal immigrants whom the fugitive operations team picks up plead ignorance, said Cory Ray, the team's leader.
Ray said fugitive operations teams prioritize "targets" presenting a danger to public safety. Last week, the team made at least three arrests. One of those arrested is a man suspected in an attempted slaying in Mexico.
In 2003, fugitive operations teams were created under the Department of Homeland Security. There are 45 teams throughout the United States. The seven-member Arizona team arrived in the state last year and began operations in June.
To date, DHS reports that fugitive operations teams have arrested 52,000 fugitives nationwide and arrest about 1,000 illegal immigrants each week.
However, millions of other illegal immigrants aren't even on the agency's radar because they've never received a deportation order _ or even been stopped by U.S. Border Patrol agents.
The Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington, D.C.-based research institution, estimates that nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants are living in the United States, nearly 450,000 of them in Arizona.
The use of a highly trained team to remove undocumented immigrants from the United States is the wrong approach to a complicated issue, said Elias Bermudez, president with activist group Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras, or Immigrants Without Borders.
"It is a sad and unacceptable situation." he said. "Unfortunately, the answer does not lie with law enforcement."
However, Bermudez said he supports the fugitive operations teams for taking illegal immigrants who commit crimes off the streets.
"Those who are criminals, I will help them find and send back," he said. "I don't want criminals in this country."
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