By Anna Gorman and Andrew Blankstein
The Los Angeles Times
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA — Federal officers in Southern California over the last two weeks have arrested more than 1,300 immigrants, most of whom either have criminal records or have failed to abide by deportation orders — part of an intensifying but controversial effort across the nation to remove such violators.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which plans to announce the operation at a news conference in Los Angeles today, called the sweep the largest of its kind in the U.S. Nearly 600 of those arrested at homes, workplaces and in jails have already been deported.
"Where these laws may not have been enforced in the past, that has changed," said Jim Hayes, Los Angeles field office director for ICE.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, pressure has been growing on the federal government to crack down on illegal immigrants, especially those who have committed crimes. And ICE has been waging a public relations battle to show that it is addressing the problem.
In the recent ICE operation, nearly 90% of the immigrants arrested had criminal records, deportation orders or had reentered the United States after being removed. The rest, 146, were "collateral" arrests — people who encountered the agents and could not prove they were in the United States legally. Officers arrested 530 immigrants in their homes and workplaces and took custody of nearly 800 others from jails in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
The 1,327 arrests surpassed the 1,297 undocumented immigrants arrested by ICE agents at meat processing plants in six states last December, part of an investigation into identity theft.
The enforcement is the latest example of the how some local law enforcement agencies are cooperating with federal authorities to ensure that criminals are identified and deported, rather than simply released from jail. ICE recently created a 24-hour command center, complete with a specific e-mail address and phone number, where local law enforcement officers can exchange information with immigration agents to identify possible deportees.
Though Los Angeles police, under a controversial policy, do not routinely inquire about suspects' immigration status, Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange and San Bernardino counties have formal agreements with ICE that allow local sheriff's officials to check the immigration status of inmates. ICE agents also work in some city jails, including Costa Mesa and Anaheim.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca called the partnership between ICE and jail personnel "very successful." He said his department had identified and interviewed 8,000 illegal immigrant inmates in the county jail system between January and September.
"It shows the volume in Los Angeles County is significant when it comes to the managing of illegal immigrants that have committed local crimes," Baca said.
In Orange County, officials found that about 10% of the 46,000 inmates that have gone through the system since mid-January were illegal immigrants.
"It's exceeding our expectations," Sheriff Michael S. Carona said of the screening program. "The communities are slowly but surely" buying into it. "We are not going down the street asking people for their immigration status."
In many cities, there has been a rising backlash to special treatment of illegal immigrants, including in Los Angeles, where officers have long interpreted the department's Special Order 40 as prohibiting them from asking the immigration status of suspects in most routine cases. Anti-illegal immigrant groups are suing to overturn the order.
The federal arrests also signal a change in how Immigration and Customs Enforcement deals with absconders and violators. In the past, most immigrants simply ignored their deportation orders, knowing there was little chance of arrest. Even those who were detained often posted bond and hid in plain sight in the community.
"There is no question that the immigration problems that our country is facing are problems that have grown over a long period of time," said ICE Assistant Secretary Julie L. Myers. "Historically, the agency was not aggressively focused on detaining those who posed a risk of flight."
But Myers said the agency is expanding bed space, detaining more immigrants and increasingly using alternatives to detention, such as electronic monitoring.
In 2003, ICE created 17 fugitive operations teams to target specific immigrants. As of this week, there are 75 such teams around the nation, including five in the Los Angeles area. Since the program's inception, ICE teams have arrested more than 61,000 immigrants, including 17,331 who had criminal convictions.
Overall, there are an estimated 595,000 immigration fugitives in the United States, down 37,000 from a year ago — marking the first-ever decline, ICE authorities said.
About 1,100 of the recent arrestees were from Mexico. An additional 170 were from Central America, and others were from countries including Vietnam, Indonesia and Ireland. They had committed crimes such as burglary, domestic violence, assault and transportation of drugs, agents said. Some of them were legal, permanent residents who were deportable because of the crimes they committed.
The U.S. attorney's office plans to prosecute more than 45 of the arrestees for reentry after deportation, a felony that could land them in prison for up to 20 years.
"These are people who, No. 1 , have no right to be in the United States legally and they've exacerbated that crime by committing additional crimes," Hayes said. "These aren't people that we want in our communities. These aren't just people looking for work."
At 5:15 a.m. last Thursday, several armed officers wearing bullet-proof vests met at a Food 4 Less parking lot in Maywood. Supervisory Agent Jorge Field ran through the list of targets they were seeking.
Among them was Ramon Yac Mahik. Field showed the officers his photo and recited his information: Male from Guatemala. Thirty-five years old. Previous convictions for vehicle theft and domestic violence. An Immigration Court ruled against him. His appeal was denied by the Board of Immigration Appeals.
Several ICE vehicles pulled up quietly on his street in Los Angeles and within seconds the officers had surrounded the house. They knocked on the front door, but the people living at the apartment didn't know him. Then a woman came down a side stairway leading to an upstairs apartment.
Field asked her name and her husband's name. After getting permission to go inside, officers found Mahik. Field told him that he had an immigration warrant for his arrest. After the Guatemalan said goodbye to his children and gave his wife his boss' phone number, he was handcuffed and escorted to a van.
Later that morning, he sat on a metal bench at an immigration processing center in Santa Ana. In an interview, he acknowledged his criminal record but said it was from years earlier and that he deserved to have a chance to stay in the United States. Mahik said he was ordered deported in 1999 after posting bond and then failing to show up in court.
He works in the garment industry and has three U.S.-born children, ages 16, 10 and 5. His wife was injured in a recent car accident and can't work, he said.
"I don't consider myself a criminal," he said in Spanish. "I would like to fight to see if they let me stay here with my children. To leave them abandoned would be horrible for me. ... And I don't want them to suffer."
The arrests break up families and create an unfair and inaccurate impression of the immigrant community, which is by and large law-abiding, said Reshma Shamasunder, director of the California Immigrant Policy Center. Enforcement actions also cause fear in immigrant neighborhoods and families that may include U.S. citizens.
"It directs public attention away from the real need to reform the immigration system overall," she said. "This is not going to solve our problems. ... This is just one narrow-minded, mean-spirited way of trying to fix the immigration problem."
Anti-illegal immigration groups, however, said the action showed what the government can do when it is motivated to enforce the law.
"I hate to sound ungrateful, because we're grateful for any enforcement," said Rick Oltman with Californians for Population Stabilization. "But at this point, we're wondering what took so long."
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times
More than 1,300 arrested as U.S. officials target immigrant criminals