The Obama administration announced Tuesday that federal agents swept up 2,400 illegal immigrants in a nationwide raid last month, starting what will likely be a months-long process of figuring out what to do with them.
The sweep, the product of a seven-day enforcement operation called "Cross Check," was described as the largest of its kind.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, in coordination with other federal agencies and local officials, tracked down illegal immigrant criminals in all 50 states and are now housing them in ICE jails across the country.
For some detainees, the next step will be a one-way flight to their home country. For others, the process could take much longer.
The illegal immigrants arrested in the sweep last month were divided into three basic categories: fugitives who had outstanding deportation orders against them, those who already had been deported and illegally re-entered the U.S., and at-large convicted criminals.
Those in the first two categories will once again be slated for deportation, though those in the second category could also face prosecution in the U.S. for the crime of illegal re-entry. The timing of their deportation would vary, depending on factors like travel documents, the availability of flights and whether their home countries will take them.
But those in the third category will be placed into removal "proceedings" before a federal immigration judge. That judge then has the discretion to order them deported or grant some form of relief to remain in the U.S.
"They're afforded due process," a federal immigration official said.
And that process can take a while. According to a report last fall by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, it took an average of 280 days for the immigration courts to act on cases in fiscal 2010, the last year for which data was available.
ICE could not provide a breakdown of what's happened to the 2,064 convicted criminals and fugitives swept up in prior Cross Check arrests. However, the agency reported that more than 122,000 criminal aliens have been removed from the country since Oct. 1.
ICE officials touted the latest raid as a message to illegal immigrant criminals that they will get caught. Among those arrested were a Libyan living in Denver convicted of first-degree sexual assault against a child and a Filipino living in Orlando convicted of battery on a law enforcement officer.
"The results of this operation underscore ICE's ongoing focus on arresting those convicted criminal aliens who prey upon our communities and tracking down fugitives who game our nation's immigration system," ICE Director John Morton said in a statement.
The operation also sends a message to states and cities that have lashed out against a separate federal-local partnership known as Secure Communities -- through which FBI fingerprints are checked against Homeland Security Department databases to see if a suspect is in the country illegally. Some states, like New York, recently came out against the program, expressing concern that it is preventing people in the immigrant community from working with law enforcement.
But ICE stressed that in the Cross Check raid federal officials were only targeting serious offenders. It came after new guidelines were issued for Secure Communities to focus the screening efforts on dangerous criminals.
While the administration is narrowing its immigration enforcement to criminals and fugitives, others say that approach is not doing the trick.
Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors in Virginia, called the arrests announced Tuesday a "drop in the bucket." He expressed concern that federal officials are still letting far too many illegal immigrants off the hook for minor crimes, which can lead to major crimes. In Prince William County, two illegal immigrants with prior records were charged in connection with deadly crimes in the span of just six months.
Stewart acknowledged that many of those swept up in the latest arrests will likely face deportation.
"They're probably going to deport most of them. ... These are very serious criminals," he said. "But again, it's just the tip of the iceberg."