The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) appears to have a new enforcement priority: undocumented foreign nationals with criminal records. In what is reportedly the largest such operation ever, the ICE arrested 286 immigrants with criminal records in a three-day sweep in California that ended Thursday night.
More sweeps seem likely in border states, as part of an increased focus by the Department of Homeland Security on targeting undocumented immigrants with serious criminal records.
“This is not so much a shift in tactics but an increased emphasis on the elimination of criminal aliens, making it clear on both sides of the border that that is our highest priority,” said John Morton, Homeland Security assistant secretary who oversees ICE, in a phone interview.
“This is going to be our central focus for years to come,” Mr. Morton said, adding that the sweep was aimed at “sending the clear signal that if you come here, you need to play by the rules or we will find you and capture you and send you home.”
Eighty percent of those arrested in California had prior convictions for serious or violent crimes such as armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, and rape, said the ICE. Those arrested included people from Mexico, Denmark, Taiwan and Tonga.
The special operation involved more than 400 agents and officers from ICE, the US Marshals Service, and state and local agencies.
Morton said that there would be more sweeps in other states to show that the US is serious about identifying and removing criminal offenders. "In a world of limited resources, we have to make good judgments about the priorities we bring to bear.…" he said earlier Thursday while talking about enforcement of immigration laws. The Obama administration has generally eschewed the factory raids of previous years.
Though the harsher enforcement is aimed at criminals, local immigrant advocacy groups such as Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) expressed concern that such sweeps would also hurt the innocent.
“Based on the reports from today’s raid, it appears the Administration is keeping its word about focusing its resources on real criminals and immigrants with final deportation orders,” says Jorge-Mario Cabrera, chief spokesman for CHIRLA, in an e-mail. “We are still very concerned that we are unaware as to what infractions these folks have committed and that all detainees are being painted with the same broad brush. No one should absolutely forego their chances for due process.”
National anti-immigration groups praised the new effort, but said it did not make up for the lack of other enforcement actions.
“Arresting ‘serious or violent’ criminals is obviously something we support and encourage and it should be a priority for ICE,” says Ira Mehlman, lead spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). But, he added that “arresting aliens with serious or violent crimes on their records seems to be the only type of enforcement the Obama administration is prepared to carry out.”
He pointed to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) figures that show a steep drop in arrests of illegal immigrants between 2008 and 2009. Administrative arrests dropped by 68 percent, while criminal arrests fell by 60 percent in this period.
The Obama administration has “curtailed virtually all other areas of immigration enforcement aimed at enforcing immigration laws against non-criminal violators,” Mr. Mehlman said.
Follow us on Twitter.