By Rachel Uranga, Los Angeles Daily News, Whittier Daily News
October 4, 2007
In what federal authorities are calling the largest sweep of criminal and fugitive immigrants, federal agents over the past two weeks have arrested more than 1,300 Southland immigrants in their homes, in jails and at work, officials announced Wednesday.
As part of a stepped-up national crackdown on illegal immigrants, five teams of Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents raided homes in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties from Sept. 19 through Tuesday.
Some arrests were easy, while others involved agents peering into clothes dryers or squeezing deep into crawl spaces to find hidden suspects. Most of those arrested were from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala.
"Too often in the past, (deportation) orders were ignored and aliens thought that after getting an order of removal they could slip back into society," said Julie Myers, assistant secretary for ICE. "Those days are no longer."
Immigrant-rights groups decried the raids for stirring fear in the community, noting that more than 100 of those arrested had no criminal or court record.
But amid heated public debate and increased political pressure to enforce the country’s immigration laws, the agency has waged a high-profile campaign across the country to clamp down on illegal immigrants, last month arresting dozens at McDonald’s restaurants in an identity-theft operation.
In the most recent effort, agents combed through law enforcement and online databases and worked with local officials to identify hundreds of criminals here illegally and fugitives who have ignored deportation orders.
Fanning out across the region in daylong raids, agents arrested 530 illegals – 269 of whom were identified as criminals and 115 of whom had been ordered deported. The rest were undocumented immigrants who had no criminal records.
Officials said 797 inmates were taken from local jails, including 240 from those overseen by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Ventura County turned over 125 inmates, and the state prison in Lancaster had 41.
Some of the inmates were sexual predators or gang members. About 600 of those arrested have already been deported, most to Tijuana. Immigration officials said they have alerted Mexican officials of the deportations.
The crackdown is part of a national effort dubbed the Fugitive Operation Program targeting 597,000 immigrants who have been ordered by a judge to leave the country but still remain.
Already, agents said, that since October, they have reduced the number of immigrants evading deportation by 35,000, marking the first-ever decline in the immigrant backlog.
"This is a war against immigrants," said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities. "In this war, there is collateral damage. The U.S. seems to be blind to the suffering of family members and anyone else who happens to be in their way. Those that are not criminal are getting arrested."
Cabrera noted one call he received last week from a University of California, Los Angeles, student whose father was deported as part of the raid. He said the family has since moved, and he suspects others are being driven further underground.
Since the program began in 2003, 61,000 illegal immigrants have been arrested. Slightly less than a third had criminal records.
Over the past year, immigration officials have added 23 teams of about 10 agents each to the national program, including a new one created this summer in Orange County.
"It’s the kind of deterrent methods that we need to be sending instead of the message of encouragement that we have been sending for two decades," said Rick Oltman, a spokesman for Californians for Population Stabilization, a group advocating tighter borders and fewer immigrants – legal or illegal. "It lets the worst of the worst know that there is no sanctuary anymore. This is the kind of thing that local law enforcement should be anxious to participate in."
The U.S. Attorney’s Office is prosecuting about a dozen of those arrested in the two-week operation for re-entering the U.S. after being deported. Most of those suspects are facing three to five years in federal prison.