MIAMI — Immigration officers pounded on the door of Veronica Ruiz's apartment in West Miami-Dade near dawn, their arrival marking the culmination of painstaking work to find a fugitive fleeing a final deportation order.
Ruiz, from Colombia, hid with her husband and two children that February morning and never opened the door. The officers left and Ruiz went into hiding again - among the nation's more than half a million immigration absconders.
Her case illustrates the difficulty in expelling fugitives from deportation orders in a perennially underfunded and understaffed system. The mathematics of enforcement don't compute. Resources are simply insufficient. Rounding up all the fugitives would take decades.
The Senate immigration bill that collapsed in June would have helped millions of undocumented immigrants become legal and also promised $4.4 billion more to amp up enforcement. Now immigrant rights advocates predict an escalation in immigration raids by Homeland Security and local police. Deportation-order fugitives like Ruiz, many of their names already in the national database, are prime targets.
But even if the immigration agency were able to double the number of expelled fugitives - as it maintains it will - from the 17,817 deported in fiscal year 2006, it would take 20 years to return the 632,189 fugitives already identified. That doesn't take into account the thousands of others immigration judges would order deported during that time - since September 2003, the fugitive list grew by an average of 68,184 a year.
In making his case for the immigration bill, President Bush called it an impossible task to deport the nation's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hasn't given up on deporting the 632,189 who have been ordered to leave.
Like Ruiz, most of those deportation-order fugitives appear to be otherwise law-abiding. They have no criminal record but entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas. In 2003, ICE estimated one in five fugitives - then counted at 400,000 - had criminal records.
Recently retired immigration officers say drastic changes in enforcement would be needed to find and deport all absconders.
"It's impossible," said Frank Parodi, a senior ICE official who retired in October after 34 years in Miami and Washington. "They would have to enlist the aid of every police officer in the country to do it."
Bill West, a former ICE supervisor, said the government would have to more than triple the number of immigration agents who investigate cases from the nearly 6,000 today to more than 20,000, add thousands more detention beds and streamline convoluted deportation proceedings.
Another problem is the increasing difficulty in expelling some detained foreign nationals who have criminal records, according to Ames Holbrook, a former deportation officer in New Orleans.
In his book "The Deporter," to be released in October by a division of the Penguin Group, Holbrook contends that some consulates in Miami and other major U.S. cities delay travel documents for detained foreign criminals, and they end up back on U.S. streets.
Immigration officials are forced to release criminals who cannot be deported - to avoid violating a 2001 Supreme Court ruling prohibiting indefinite detention of undeportable foreign nationals.
"Rapists, murderers, extortionists, kidnappers, armed robbers, arsonists, carjackers, identity thieves, bombers, child molesters: I have unleashed them all," Holbrook writes.
A recent internal Homeland Security assessment lists Haiti, China, Pakistan and India as "difficult" countries that resist accepting deportees with criminal records. The report listed Cuba, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam as largely unwilling to issue travel documents.
Holbrook admitted lying to consular officials or threatening them with diplomatic sanctions to pressure them to issue travel documents.
Barbara Gonzalez, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman in Miami, did not dispute the challenges, but added her agency has made considerable progress in targeting fugitives, especially after the Fugitive Operations Support Center in Burlington, Vt., opened in June 2006.
"It is a crucial part of our effort to reduce the fugitive alien population," she said.
The center "has resolved over 35,000 fugitive cases, generated and disseminated 150,000 leads to ICE fugitive operations teams, and analyzed data associated with over 60 national ICE-(deportation and removal) enforcement initiatives resulting in thousands of arrests," she said.
Gonzalez also noted that 53 agency teams have been assigned since February to track down deportation-order fugitives, and Congress has added funding for 23 more teams for fiscal 2007.
Yet even Homeland Security's inspector general notes that the teams can't keep up. Shortcomings in computer databases, personnel shortages and lack of detention space make reducing the fugitive backlog an elusive goal.
"Despite the efforts of the teams, the backlog of fugitive alien cases has increased each fiscal year," says a March report by the inspector general's office.
Agency officials recently announced the first-ever decline in the number of fugitives, a drop of about 500 people in the last two months. Not mentioned, though, was that the number of fugitives is now more than 232,000 higher than in 2003, when a strategy to find them was announced in a report titled Endgame. At the time, officials estimated a 400,000 backlog could be eliminated by 2012.
Even if all fugitives were detained within a year, authorities would not have anywhere to put them. There are an estimated 27,500 beds in detention jails nationwide.
Nor are all 632,189 detention orders necessarily final. Sometimes there are good reasons to reopen a case, and courts will grant legal status.
Jorge Rivera, Ruiz's Miami attorney, said this month he has filed a motion to reopen her case.
"I feel more protected now," Ruiz said.
Ruiz, 32, arrived in Miami in 2000, fleeing leftist guerrillas who had kidnapped her father in Colombia. Ruiz asked for asylum, but an immigration judge ordered her deported and two appellate panels agreed.
For now, she remains in hiding - among the 632,189 and counting who are hoping the math will work in their favor.