Feds arrest 284 criminal illegal immigrants

February 26, 2010 7:33:46 PM PST
Federal agents arrested 284 immigrants with criminal records during a three-day immigration enforcement surge across Texas -- their biggest push so far, authorities said Friday. Dubbed Operation Cross Check, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said this week's action was one of the largest sweeps the agency has ever conducted targeting at-large foreign nationals convicted of crimes.

"Texas is safer" because fewer criminal immigrants are on its streets, ICE director John Morton said, stressing that they did not arrest any non-criminals.

That's a shift from several years ago when immigrant advocates complained that ICE agents were arresting illegal immigrants who happened to be home when authorities knocked on the door looking for someone else.

About 56 percent, or 159, of the 284 arrested this week had previous convictions for violent crimes such as homicide or assault.

"These are not people that we want walking our streets here in Texas or living in our communities," Morton said.

The arrests were carried out Tuesday through Thursday by local law enforcement officers working with ICE, the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service ---- nearly 300 law enforcement officials in all.

Arrests in the Dallas-Fort Worth area netted 119 criminal immigrants, 73 in San Antonio, 59 in Houston and 33 in El Paso, authorities said.

Those arrested came from at least 22 nations in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, officials said, noting that Mexican nationals were not singled out.

Although 95 immigrants were convicted of drug offenses, others were sex offenders, burglars and robbers, thieves, and people convicted of firearm offenses and smuggling, Morton said.

About 35 of those arrested had re-entered the U.S. illegally after deportation. At least 26 of those face federal charges for re-entering the country illegally after being deported. A conviction carries a penalty of up to 20 years in federal prison, officials said.

Eighteen of the 284 arrested in Texas already have been deported.

"We are a compassionate nation with a proud history of immigration," said Morton, the Homeland Security assistant secretary in charge of ICE. "But we are also a nation of laws. If you come here illegally and commit crimes, a different kind of welcome awaits you."

This week's action was led by ICE's fugitive operations program, which locates, arrests and removes criminal immigrants and immigration fugitives -- those who have ignored final deportation orders.

Last year, Morton said the fugitive teams would increasingly focus on finding people with criminal records. Cases involving immigrants who pose a threat to national security and public safety, including members of transnational street gangs and child sex offenders, are given top priority.

There are 104 fugitive operations teams across the country. In 2006, each team was assigned to make 1,000 arrests a year. In August, Morton said he had done away with the quotas.