LOS ANGELES – Immigration agents arrested 280 people in California in their biggest push yet to round up suspected illegal immigrants with criminal records, authorities said Friday.
More than 400 agents and local law enforcement officers fanned out across the state in the three-day search led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"These are not people who we want walking our streets," ICE director John Morton said. "We're going to focus on those people who choose to pursue a life of crime in the United States rather than pursue the American dream of education, hard work and success."
The operation came four months after Morton said the agency's fugitive operations teams would increasingly focus on finding people with criminal records and no longer use arrest quotas.
The agency said the teams arrested twice as many immigrants with criminal records in the 2009 fiscal year than during the year-ago period.
On Wednesday, agents wearing hooded sweat shirts and jackets emblazoned with "ICE" clustered outside a row of apartment homes in Huntington Park in the morning cold to look for a gang member who was deported to Mexico in 2007 after serving time for vehicle theft.
Agents had learned his wife was here and collecting food stamps, leading them to believe he had returned to this country illegally.
Slinging rifles across their backs, they approached the front gate. One rapped on a window and said "Police!"
Minutes later, they emerged with a 40-year old man known as "Rascal" in handcuffs and drove him to Los Angeles to be fingerprinted, photographed and either bused to Mexico or held in this country to face federal charges for illegally returning to the U.S.
ICE would not release the man's name because he did not face new criminal charges as of Friday. The man declined to be interviewed.
"As we bring these people into custody, we're also contributing to the reduction of crime in our local communities. That's really the thrust of it all," said Robert Naranjo, an assistant field office director for ICE's detention and removal operations in Los Angeles.
More than 80 percent of the people arrested this week had prior convictions for serious or violent crimes, according to ICE. Seventeen people will face federal charges for re-entering the country illegally after being deported.
The arrests carried out from Tuesday to Thursday were similar to those made in prior years by fugitive operations teams, which were created in 2003 to help reduce the number of immigrants who failed to obey deportation orders.
The latest sweep also netted six people who had deportation orders but no criminal record.
That marked a shift from several years ago, when immigrant advocates complained that ICE agents were arresting illegal immigrants who happened to be home when authorities knocked on the door looking for someone else.
There are 104 fugitive operations teams across the country. In 2006, each team was assigned to make 1,000 arrests a year. In August, Morton — who took over his post this year — said he had done away with the quotas.