Oct 3, 2007, 14:59 GMT
Los Angeles - Federal officials have arrested more than 1,300 criminal illegal immigrants in southern California over the past two weeks in the biggest operation of its kind in the US, the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday.
Most of those arrested either have criminal records or have failed to abide by deportation orders. More than 600 of those arrested have already been deported.
An official announcement of the operation by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement is expected later Wednesday.
Officials stepped up their crackdown on criminal illegal immigrants following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, and intensified their actions even further during failed efforts to pass an immigration reform bill.
Previously the biggest such operation entailed the arrest of 1,297 undocumented immigrants at meat processing plants in six states last December. The California operation netted 1,327 arrests.
'Where these laws may not have been enforced in the past, that has changed,' said Jim Hayes, Los Angeles field office director for ICE.
Immigrant rights groups protested the arrests, saying they broke up families and created an inaccurate impression of the immigrant community. Enforcement actions also cause fear in immigrant neighborhoods and families that may include US citizens.
'It directs public attention away from the real need to reform the immigration system overall,' Reshma Shamasunder, director of the California Immigrant Policy Center, told the paper. 'This is not going to solve our problems. This is just one narrow-minded, mean-spirited way of trying to fix the immigration problem.'
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 operation relied on close cooperation between the ICE and local law enforcement agencies. In the past local authorities often refrained from checking the immigration status of suspects. But under a new programme the status of jailed inmates was ascertained and they were handed over to immigration agents after serving their sentences, rather than simply being released from jail.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca 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 per cent of the 46,000 inmates who have gone through the system since mid-January were illegal immigrants.
According to the report, 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.
Overall, there are an estimated 595,000 immigration fugitives in the United States, down 37,000 from a year ago, according to the ICE.