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US Immigration Authorities Step up Deportations of Illegal Immigrants

Authorities in the United States are stepping up efforts to return illegal immigrants to their home countries. Under a program called "Operation Return to Sender," 2007 is set to be a record year for deportations. Critics say the government is shifting away from only pursuing illegal aliens with criminal records to arresting all undocumented migrants regardless of background. Immigration authorities say they are simply enforcing the law. Steve Mort reports from Florida for VOA.

Sandy Doumet is packing her belongings and heading to Mexico to be with her husband who was recently deported. Doumet emigrated to the United States from Ecuador 11 years ago and recently became a U.S. citizen. "It's hard to understand how a country that opened doors to me now is kicking me out, because in a way I have to leave even if I don't want to, because if I stay here my kids will grow up without a father and I don't want that."

Sandy and her husband lived together in Florida for eight years and have been married for six.

The couple has three young children, all U.S. citizens, and ran a successful business. But Sandy's Mexican husband, who came to the U.S. illegally 10 years ago, has been deported three times and is banned from returning.

Sandy is pleading with authorities to let her family be together in the United States. "Bring my husband back because we had a good life here. We didn't ask the government for anything. We were good citizens. My husband was a good citizen."

Pro-immigrant advocates say such cases show that efforts to deport more illegal immigrants are destroying lives.

Denise Diaz is with the immigrant advocacy group Jobs with Justice. She says agents used to focus on tracking down criminal aliens, but now unfairly target all undocumented migrants.

"They're not a threat to society or the safety of Americans. So they've taken it a step further in their abuses and, at this point, it looks like they've gone as far as violating the civil rights, and bottom-line, human rights of these people".

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, ICE, said in a statement to VOA that it only deports individuals who are in violation of their immigration status or were ordered deported by a judge.

ICE says it is simply enforcing laws as expeditiously and with as much dignity as possible. It denies there has been a change of emphasis towards deporting illegal immigrants regardless of their criminal history.

The rise in deportations is welcomed by Mike Jarbeck. He heads a Florida chapter of the Minuteman Project, an activist group that opposes illegal immigration. "I want to see every last illegal alien rounded up, identified and sent home.

U.S. government statistics show that of the 150,000 illegal immigrants removed between October 2006 and June 2007, around 90,000 had no criminal record. Again Mike Jarbeck of the Minuteman Project.

"In America, we are a country of laws. And the problem with this is, if we don't enforce the law then what do we have? We have a double standard. We have a whole group of people who are set above the law who the law doesn't apply to. That's unconstitutional. Our constitution does not allow for that."

The U.S. immigration agency says it does not deport people arbitraily, and instead targets individuals based on specific information.

But that is little comfort to Sandy Doumet. She says she will stay with her husband in Mexico, but return regularly to the U.S. so one of her children can receive medical care for a heart condition.

And she hopes that one day her whole family will be able to live together again in the United States.