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Elusive Immigrant Criminals Target of U.S. Dragnet

May 15, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Federal authorities on Wednesday announced a renewed crackdown against immigrants who have committed crimes in the United States but who have managed to avoid deportation.

About 80,000 "criminal alien absconders" are estimated to be on the loose, many of them keeping low profiles after serving prison time for their crimes.

An additional 300,000 immigrant absconders have received deportation orders but have eluded immigration agents. With a $10-million appropriation from Congress, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it will redouble efforts to find and deport them.

"We are looking for you. We will find you. And your days in the United States are numbered," said Michael Garcia, director of the bureau, a part of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service that is now in the Homeland Security Department.

Garcia released a "most wanted list" featuring child molesters, killers, rapists and drug felons. "These are not crime bosses, but they are a threat to the public," said Neil Clark, a senior bureau agent helping to direct the crackdown.

Some of those on the most wanted list of nine men and one woman have convictions dating back to the late 1980s.

Immigrants -- even those with legal status -- can be deported for a wide range of criminal offenses, not all of them major. For years, however, the federal government has lacked a comprehensive way to track immigrants serving prison time. The Clinton administration and Congress made deportations of foreign-born convicts a priority in the mid-1990s.

"It's been a historical problem," said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security. "Historically, local law enforcement arrested someone, sent them to state prison, and it was never checked."

Immigration authorities now coordinate with many penal institutions, but many foreign-born convicts still slip through the immigration dragnet.

The federal government also has eight teams of immigration agents tracking down such fugitives in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Detroit, Chicago, Miami and Newark, N.J. New York has two of the units.

The additional funds from Congress will be used partly to double the number of teams, assigning agents to Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Georgia, Illinois, Texas and Washington state.

The government will also improve the capabilities of a data center that can provide local law enforcement with information on immigrants who run afoul of the criminal justice system.

The effort is part of a larger government strategy since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to more closely monitor immigrants and exercise tighter control over immigration.

In most instances, the deportation cases are expected to be routine -- a matter of locating the person, verifying identity and making an arrest.

One of the men on the most wanted list was arrested quietly in Rialto, Calif., on Tuesday. Estevan Grajiola-Mora was picked up at his home around 6 a.m., said Chuck Ziethen, acting chief of fugitive operations.

"It was without incident," Ziethen added.

The 57-year-old machinist had been convicted in 1994 of lewd and lascivious acts on a minor under age 14. In 1999, Grajiola-Mora was released on bond by an immigration judge, while he contested his deportation.

Until recently, he had dropped off the immigration enforcement radar screen. Now he is back in his native Mexico, Ziethen said.

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