'Fugitive aliens' like Obama's aunt escape notice as U.S. pursues criminals
By DENISE LAVOIE Associated Press
Nov. 14, 2008, 11:04PMShare Print Email Del.icio.usDiggTechnoratiYahoo! BuzzBOSTON — Zeituni Onyango came to the United States seeking asylum from her native Kenya but was turned down and ordered to leave the country in 2004.
Four years later, she is still here. And her nephew is about to become president of the United States.
Onyango's family connection to Barack Obama has thrown a spotlight on a phenomenon many Americans might find startling: An estimated half-million immigrants are living in the United States in defiance of deportation orders.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has stepped up efforts to catch fugitive aliens, as they are known, and now has about 100 "fugitive operations teams" around the country. In the past year, the teams have made 34,000 arrests, more than double the number two years ago. But there are still 560,000 such immigrants in the U.S.
Fugitive aliens include people who, like Obama's aunt, sought asylum in the United States but were rejected and ordered to leave the country. Others were caught entering or living in this country illegally, and failed to show at their deportation hearings.
Often, illegal immigrants who have been issued deportation notices are given a certain amount of time to get out of the country on their own. They are not forcibly put aboard a plane; these deportations essentially operate on the honor system.
Generally, if these immigrants stay out of trouble — if they don't get pulled over by police or swept up in a workplace raid, for example — they are in little danger of being thrown out of the country.
That galls many immigration reform advocates, who say the practice breeds disrespect for the law and emboldens immigrants to sneak in and stay.
"We are strong believers of enforcement of our immigration laws, and this is a priority area for getting the message across to this country, that if they've been convicted of committing crimes or if they have been ordered deported, that they will be apprehended if they try to hide and continue to stay in the country," said Jack Martin of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Government officials say that they do the best they can with the money and manpower available to them, and that they focus on the most serious cases, including those involving illegal immigrants who have committed crimes in this country.
"ICE has taken tremendous steps at closing these cases and apprehending fugitives," said spokesman Richard Rocha. "However, we prioritize our efforts on egregious violators and criminal aliens."
The Obama camp has said the candidate did not know about his aunt's status.