Hundreds have so far been arrested in the past few weeks in an exercise dubbed "Operation Return to Sender," according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE.
ICE, the enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security, has increased the number of fugitive operations teams from 18 to 52 in the major crackdown, according to ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley. Since ICE was formed in 2003, more than 13,000 people have been arrested nationwide, she added.
The raids are not sweeps; they specifically target individuals who have ignored deportation orders, Haley said. By the end of 2007, the agency expects to have 75 teams making arrests, she added.
"It is an absolute priority. We are committed to restoring integrity to our nation's immigration system," she said.
Immigrant communities in parts of Redwood City and East Palo Alto began experiencing the raids two weeks ago, area residents report.
The arrests have fed numerous rumors, including that agents raided Hoover Elementary School in Redwood City and La Azteca market and restaurant near downtown. But Hoover Principal Greg Land said no agents are allowed on district campuses, and a manager at the market said agents had not raided the property. Haley said a rumor that the IKEA store in East Palo Alto had been targeted was unsubstantiated.
Haley said most raids are made at residences early in the morning or in the evening, and are not generally made at businesses to minimize safety risks.
She did not know how many arrests have been made in Redwood City and East Palo Alto, but in Contra Costa County alone 120 people were arrested between Jan. 8 and 19.
Although agents are targeting specific individuals, if other persons in the home are not in the United States legally, they are also arrested and may face deportation, she said.
Mary Dutcher, an immigration attorney with Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, said one of her clients, a mother with two children, was picked up by accident.
Fleeing deportation is an administrative rather than a criminal violation, and fugitives from deportation are sent back to their countries of origin rather than jailed, she added.
Persons who are not already fugitives from deportation will receive due process, Virginia Kice, another ICE spokeswoman, said.
"I want to emphasize that they are not being removed without due process and they have the right to appeal. But if they lose, there should be an expectation that they will comply with the order and leave," she added.
Kice said that until a few years ago, no enforcement strategy was in place, and fugitive cases were handled on an ad hoc basis. She expressed dismay that some Spanish-language news stations have made much of the arrest of a parent of a kindergartener attending Hoover Elementary. The man fled when approached at his apartment several blocks away from the school.
"We did not arrest 'the parent of a kindergartener,' we arrested a man who assaulted two officers and was transported to the hospital after complaining of chest pains," she said.
Hoover has provided counselors to some students who are distressed that a family member will be taken away, Principal Greg Land said. And area immigrant advocates said many in the community are afraid they will be swept up along with the fugitives.
"The way they are going about doing it is wrong. It's one thing to arrest someone who (is a fugitive), but to go in and arrest everyone in a house is wrong," said Sheryl Bergman, director of the International Institute of San Francisco, an immigrants' services agency that has clients who have been taken away by ICE.
"They (ICE teams) don't have the same obligation to require them to inform the people they arrest of what their rights are. They can interrogate them without informing them of their Miranda rights," she said.
There are some reports of ICE officers knocking on people's doors saying they are police, she added. "This causes tension and confusion, and destroys trust local police have built up with the community," she said.
More people may be facing deportation due to policy changes since early July, she said.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association sent a letter to immigration attorneys on July 11 warning them that notices to appear for deportation are being sent to individuals previously protected while awaiting family-preference status acceptance.
Immigration preference is given to those who are immediate relatives of a U.S. citizen, such as a child of a parent, and to others in four categories, such as relatives of aunts and uncles. But such individuals have no formal immigration status while awaiting approval and may be caught up in the sweep, she said.
The change in policy reflects a tighter view of the family-preference policy and could spell misfortune for many immigrants hoping to stay in the United States due to family connections, many being parents with children, she added.
A dramatic increase in green card and other immigration fees announced Jan. 31 by Emilio Gonzalez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, will cause increased hardship for immigrant families, Dutcher said. Under the Bush administration plan it will cost $905 -- up from $325 -- to apply for a green card or to adjust residency status. To become naturalized citizens, the fee would rise to $595, a $265 increase. Bringing a foreign fiance to the United States would more than double, to $455.
"We really need immigration reform," Dutcher said. "My clients won't even be able to afford to apply."