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 an immigration office in 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 United States illegally 15 years ago from Mexico City. "We risked everything to get here for a reason."
The offer from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement runs through Aug. 22 in Santa Ana, San Diego, Chicago, Phoenix and Charlotte as part of the agency's new Scheduled Departure Program. It could be expanded nationwide if successful.
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.
"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.