HARLINGEN, Texas — More than 500 immigrants, most of them legal permanent U.S. residents, have been rounded up for deportation in a Texas crackdown on those with three or more drunken driving convictions, immigration officials said Thursday.
The arrests outraged immigrant rights advocates, who said they are unjust and break up families.
Operation Last Call began last month and culminated in a major sweep this week, with Immigration and Naturalization Service agents seizing people from their homes and workplaces. Many who were targeted for deportation were already behind bars for other offenses.
The arrests were made under the 1996 U.S. immigration reform law, which allows deportation for an aggravated felony. In Texas, a third drunken driving conviction is a felony.
As of Thursday, 223 people had been arrested in Dallas, 104 in El Paso, 101 in Harlingen, 76 in San Antonio, and 33 in Houston, the INS said. Most are from Mexico.
The INS said the operation was meant to get repeat offenders off the streets and serve as a warning about drunken driving over the Labor Day weekend.
Spokesman Lynn Ligon said the INS has full authority to remove habitual drunken drivers.
"We take that responsibility very seriously," he said at a news conference in Dallas. "For the victims of a drunk driver, citizenship status is meaningless."
Most of those detained are men, ages 31 to 40, who have been in the United States for six to 10 years, Ligon said.
Albert Armendariz, an El Paso-based attorney representing several people picked up in the sweep, accused federal officials of twisting federal laws. Armendariz said one of his clients has lived in the United States for 35 years and that his wife and children are all U.S. citizens. His client now faces deportation to Mexico for drunken driving convictions from years ago.
Benigo Pena, executive director of the South Texas Immigration Council, said many of those being detained are the main source of support for their families and have paid for their crimes already.
But INS spokesman Jesus Placencia said those arrested in El Paso include one person who had 10 convictions for driving while intoxicated.
It's not clear whether other states will follow Texas' lead.
No similar roundup is planned in Southern California, said an INS spokesman in Los Angeles. But INS officers do encounter offenders during regular swings through jails and mark them for deportation.
Immigrants who ask for deportation hearings will get them within a few weeks, the INS said. Some could be deported within days.