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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.