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McCain Dodges Immigration Issue As Feds Advertise Voluntary Deportation Program

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By Suman Raghunathan

While reform groups like The Sanctuary grow increasingly frustrated with campaign "tip-toeing" and "lip service" on immigration, federal authorities are enlisting ethnic media in their efforts to encourage the nation’s undocumented immigrants to deport themselves as part of a pilot program called 'Operation Scheduled Departure', first reported on last week by the blog Feet in 2 Worlds.

The Sanctuary recently distributed a call for presidential candidates Obama and McCain to answer what the organization called a "comprehensive survey on Latino issues." Since both candidates have been courting the Latino vote, the Sanctuary editors wrote in a press release, we wanted open and honest information about their positions. "We were tired of seeing the candidates tip-toe around the issues and merely pay lip service. So we created this questionnaire posing specific policy questions for the candidates to answer," said Sanctuary editor Edmundo Rocha.

The Obama campaign has responded and the McCain Campaign has not.

Meantime, The Associated Press reported yesterday that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency responsible for enforcing immigration law, is placing ads via ethnic media in many of the five major cities where the new Operation Scheduled Departure" program is being implemented: Santa Ana and San Diego, CA; Phoenix; Charlotte, NC; and Chicago. The media outlets running the paid advertisements include major newspapers such as La Prensa Hispana in Phoenix. Popular Spanish- and Polish-language radio stations such as WPNA 1490 AM in Chicago were also contacted by ICE to run the ads.

So far, no ads have been taken out in mainstream English-language outlets in the cities included in the pilot program.

Operation Scheduled Departure” encourages undocumented immigrants without criminal records to turn themselves in to ICE. In return for coming forward and agreeing to leave the country, immigrants will not be detained and will have 90 days to “get their affairs in order.” They will also receive paid travel back to their home countries (by bus for those going to Mexico, by air for those returning to other countries). The program is slated to run for a pilot period that began August 5th and continues to August 22nd.

The ad from yesterday's online edition of Phoenix's La Prensa Hispana reads, "If you aren't the only person who must leave the country, ICE can help with necessary arrangements so your family can return with you."

ICE's outreach plan also keeps pace with the growing power and reach of the nation's ethnic media, particularly print and television outlets. The nation's Spanish-language media is increasing its market share of television viewers to a level never seen before: the evening newscast on WXTV, Telemundo's channel 41 in the metropolitan New York region, is now the number one newscast among all viewers below age 49 in metropolitan New York-New Jersey.

Notice of 'Operation Scheduled Departure' was leaked to the general public with a mention on 'Al Punto', a popular news and public affairs program on Univisión, the national Spanish-language television behemoth.

The program has been ridiculed by immigrant rights groups, who note the program does not provide any other incentives for undocumented immigrants, many of them with families that include US citizen children, to come forward.

Josh Hoyt, Executive Director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, (based in Chicago, one of the program's five cities) noted,

"This is a silly idea...[and] another one of these fantasy ideas of the political season. The vast majority of immigrants are trying to stay in the U.S. because they have American citizen children, they have homes and they have jobs they’ve been working at for years."

So far, only one individual in the entire country -- in Phoenix, AZ -- has come forward to take part in the program, according to the Associated Press.

'Operation Scheduled Departure' comes at a time of widespread frustration and national debate over immigration policy and reform. In the absence of federal immigration reform, state and local governments are searching for ways to address immigration policy: the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that more than 175 immigration-related laws or resolutions have been passed at the state and local levels as of the end of June 2008.

Read more at Feet in 2 Worlds.