WASHINGTON—In recent months, newly created teams of federal agents have arrested thousands of illegal immigrants who’ve lived and worked in the United State for years without interference. Most have been deported immediately.
Since October, 13,089 immigrants have been detained, a more than 60 percent increase from the same period in 2004. The arrests peaked in May, when agents picked up a record 1,600 people nationwide.
Immigrant-rights advocates called the sweeps excessive and heavy-handed, while supporters of tougher enforcement said even more must to be done to discourage illegal immigration.
“Whenever we do any sort of enforcement action we get praise and criticism,” said Dean Boyd, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is overseeing the arrests. “Immigration is a polarizing and divisive issue.”
In the Houston area, immigration officials have reported arresting about 280 fugitive criminal illegal immigrants and immigration absconders between Jan. 1 and May 10.
“There has been an increase in recent months in going after specific absconders who violate the law by not attending court,” said Nina Pruneda, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Texas offices. “We’re constantly working around the clock to arrest these individuals and move them back to their countries as quickly as we can.”
‘It’s a higher priority’
The spike in deportations comes as the Bush administration is under pressure to improve its detection of illegal immigrants inside the country, rather than concentrating its efforts at the U.S.-Mexico border.
ICE officials said they were arresting more immigrants because more agents had been assigned full-time to find them. Since October, the number of fugitive-search teams assigned to finding immigrants where they live has increased from 18 to 38. The agency plans 14 more teams by the end of September.
“It’s a higher priority,” said John Torres, the director of ICE’s detention and removal operations.