SANTA ANA, CALIF. — Wanted: Illegal immigrants with clean records who have ignored court orders to leave the country. Immigration officials are standing by to help you leave the country. No jail. No joke.
That invitation drew hardly any takers Tuesday on the first day of a new federal "self-deportation" program that offered 457,000 eligible illegal immigrants the chance to turn themselves in, get their affairs in order and leave the country without being detained.
The tepid response only reinforced doubts about an idea that has drawn criticism and even ridicule from both sides of the immigration debate.
"You would have to be crazy - who would want to turn themselves in?" said Angel Martinez, a construction worker who waited Tuesday outside ICE's Charlotte, N.C., office while his son visited a friend detained on immigration violations.
"Nobody wants to go back," said Martinez, who came to the U.S. illegally 15 years ago from Mexico City. "We risked everything to get here for a reason."
The offer from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement runs through Aug. 22 in Santa Ana, San Diego, Chicago, Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C., as part of the agency's new Scheduled Departure Program. It could be expanded nationwide if successful.
Agents were waiting to speed people through the process - which grants participants up to three months to get their affairs in order and provides the comfort of knowing their homes won't be raided.
But by Tuesday afternoon, only one person - in Phoenix - took the offer, according to an ICE official who spoke on condition of anonymity because not all the numbers are in. Officials in the other cities said they had no takers by mid-afternoon.
"Are people actually doing it? I really find it hard to believe," said Wendy Chavez, 22, of Anaheim, who took her mother for a citizenship test.
An ICE advertising campaign being launched today targets so-called immigration "fugitives," illegal immigrants who got caught and ignored a judge's order to leave but avoided other trouble with the law.
Of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, about 572,000 are fugitives, although about 20 percent of them are ineligible to participate because they have criminal histories, officials said.
By turning themselves in, immigrants can also avoid spending weeks, months or possibly years in detention centers as their cases are processed.
And fugitives who aren't from Mexico are likely to get another benefit: A one-way plane ticket home if they can't afford the trip, just like immigrants arrested in raids. For Mexicans who are deported, ICE will consider paying bus fare to the border.