WASHINGTON — Law enforcement authorities arrested 582 alleged gang members and associates, most of whom could be deported for immigration violations, in a two-week period last month, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Monday.
Twenty-six of the arrests were made in Los Angeles.
"Many gang members come to this country from overseas, or from other parts of the North and South American continent, which means that they are subject to our immigration laws," Chertoff told a news conference at the headquarters of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "When they violate those laws, we can take action against them."
He said that the immigration agency, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, had made 1,057 arrests since February, when it announced the anti-gang initiative. Of those, Chertoff estimated, about 950 were illegal immigrants who, he said, "are subject to being removed."
In addition, he said, criminal charges either had been or were expected to be filed against about 230 of those arrested.
Initially, authorities focused on Mara Salvatrucha, a violent gang commonly known as MS-13, which is rooted in Central America but has branches in Los Angeles, the Washington, D.C., area and elsewhere. MS-13 members accounted for about half the arrests, Chertoff said.
The immigration agency expanded the program in May to target other gangs, including Border Brothers and Latin Kings. "We have arrested members of over 80 different gangs," Chertoff said.
The agency's initiative, which it calls Operation Community Shield, reflects the way concerns about border security and immigration are refocusing federal and state anti-gang operations, officials said.
The involvement of gangs in immigrant smuggling, gangs' sophisticated ability to produce fake Social Security cards and driver's licenses, and their large number of foreign-born members are leading law enforcement authorities and Congress to place renewed emphasis on immigration law as a tool for combating gangs and on anti-gang measures as a way to fight immigration fraud.
Separate from the Homeland Security effort, Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) is working with law enforcement groups, including some in Los Angeles, and others to push a bill that would allow police to deport legal and illegal immigrants who are found to be members of a violent criminal gang, regardless of whether they have committed a crime.
Marcy Foreman, director of the agency's Office of Investigations, said the anti-gang initiative involved extensive use of law enforcement databases. Immigration enforcement offices nationwide contacted state and local law enforcement agencies to identify the most pressing local gang threats.
Suspects' names and potential target information were vetted by the agency's Law Enforcement Support Center in Vermont and then run through several data banks.
The most recent arrests, from July 16 to July 28, took place not only in urban areas on both coasts, but included cities in the Midwest and the South, reflecting the nationwide presence of gangs and recent patterns of immigration.
The cities in which suspects were arrested included Sioux City, Iowa; St. Paul, Minn.; Birmingham, Ala., and Charlotte, N.C. Boston led the country with 61 arrests.
Authorities in California made 57 arrests, including 18 in San Diego and 26 in Los Angeles, immigration officials said in written statements released to coincide with the news conference. Among the suspects were:
* A 31-year-old Mexican member of the 18th Street Gang with convictions for vehicle theft, damaging power lines, threatened crime with intent to terrorize, and possession of marijuana for sale.
* A 27-year-old Guatemalan and MS-13 member who entered the U.S. illegally in 1998 was once convicted of a threatening crime with the intent to terrorize and was sentenced to 16 months in state prison.
* An Armenian national, 24, who entered the U.S. legally in 1980 and joined the Armenian Power gang. His criminal record includes convictions for drug possession and spousal battery.
Oceanside Police Chief Jerry Lance said that since February, the federal immigration agency had helped his city, north of San Diego, round up 76 alleged gang members and 80 "associates," whom he described as illegal immigrants, some with criminal records, who were present when customs enforcement authorities raided gang homes or locations.
He said that in two cities where he had served as chief -- Oceanside and Long Beach -- members of violent gangs had killed police officers.