Federal authorities are launching a pilot program next month to allow noncriminal illegal immigrants with final deportation orders to surrender rather than face possible arrest and detention.
Two Southern California cities -- Santa Ana and San Diego -- are among five cities nationwide where immigrants can turn themselves in from Aug. 5 to Aug. 22.
Certain immigrants who do so will be given up to 90 days before being required to leave the United States. And in some cases, the agency will pay for the flight for the illegal immigrants and their relatives.
Activists on both sides of the immigration debate expressed skepticism. "I wouldn't expect them to have to turn people away at the doors," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Immigration officials said the program is in response to criticism from advocacy groups that early-morning raids by armed agents disrupt families and communities.
"We want to show advocacy groups and community-based organizations that we're open to suggestions and we are open to different approaches," said Jim Hayes, acting director of detention and removal operations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Hayes said the program could also cut the agency's detention costs, because the immigrants would be detained if arrested. It could also reduce the number of immigrant fugitives on the government's list.
Hayes said more than 500,000 people are eligible to participate. The other three cities in the pilot program are Chicago, Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C. "From our perspective, this is a realistic opportunity for noncriminal aliens," Hayes said.
Angelica Salas, executive director of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said despite immigrants' fear of being arrested, she doesn't expect them to come forward because they have families, jobs and homes in the U.S.