Federal authorities are for the first time making a dent in the number of immigration fugitives in the United States, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported during the past week.

A new Salt Lake team responsible for tracking down immigration fugitives is part of a federal enforcement effort that achieved 30,408 arrests nationwide in the budget year that ended Sept. 30, 2007.

The agency estimates there are some 38,000 fewer immigration fugitives in the nation than on Oct. 1, 2006, as fugitives were arrested, left on their own, managed to adjust their status, or died.

"Great strides have been made," Steven Branch, field office director for ICE detention and removal in Salt Lake, said of the first decrease reported. Last year there were more than 600,000 immigration fugitives in the country.

However, there are still nearly 595,000 in the United States, according to ICE estimates.

Branch says tracking down those fugitives is a top priority of the federal agency. A Salt Lake-based Fugitive Operations Team was formed last September and in its first year arrested 240 immigration fugitives, including 44 with criminal records.

The fugitive team's top priority has been in removing absconders with criminal records who have "posted bond and remained on the street during the hearing process, or they're just not complying with a judge's order and have remained on the street," said Branch.

Among those is Mapele Sike, a Tongan national with a previous conviction for aggravated robbery. Sike, who had ignored a 2004 order to leave the country, was arrested in August and deported in October.

"We're trying to rid the community of these criminally involved aliens," Branch said. "They not only prey on U.S. citizens but on aliens as well."

The Salt Lake team is among 75 across the country formed since 2003, when ICE established its Fugitive Operations Program to eliminate a backlog of immigration fugitives and to ensure removal orders are enforced. Cases are prioritized based on threats to national security or community safety. The program is part of an increasing enforcement effort.

ICE removed more than 273,000 individuals in the 2007 budget year — roughly 34 percent more than the 204,000 removals in 2006.

Alex Segura, who heads the Utah Immigration Delegation, sees the stepped-up enforcement as a positive sign that momentum is shifting toward the anti-illegal immigration movement.

"This is definitely good progress," Segura said. "We're 30 years behind the ball here."

However, those advocating for immigration reform that would include legalizing undocumented immigrants have expressed concern that many of those caught in enforcement records have committed no crime other than being in the country illegally.

"While they go after bad person A, they are picking up, relatively speaking, good person, B, C, D and E," said Douglas Rivlin, a spokesman for the National Immigration Forum. "ICE is under a lot of pressure to enforce the existing immigration law, even though they know the existing law isn't realistic."

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