Thirty-six illegal immigrants who served time in Southern California for child sex offenses and were later released instead of being deported were among more than 2,100 illegal immigrants arrested in a nationwide sweep, officials said Wednesday.
The crackdown brought into sharp focus a loophole that immigration officials said they were trying to close. Illegal immigrants who commit crimes in the United States are supposed to be deported once they finish their jail or prison terms. But instead, many remain in this country because jailers don't process them through the federal deportation system, officials said.
In addition to the nationwide sweep of so-called alien offenders, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is entering into agreements with local agencies to train jail personnel to screen and identify illegal immigrants who enter their corrections systems.
Both the Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County sheriff's departments have such agreements with federal immigration authorities, and the Orange County Sheriff's Department is seeking one.
In Los Angeles County, where a pilot program began in January, 3,155 foreign-born detainees have been interviewed by eight custody assistants, and 1,788 have been placed on hold for possible deportation, sheriff's Lt. Scott Chew said.
"I would say it's been a success," Chew said.
But with such programs in their early stages, immigration officials still rely on raids and sweeps to pick up the ex-cons and deport them.
Among the 722 illegal immigrants arrested in California in Operation Return to Sender were a Romanian national living in Anaheim who was convicted of having sex with a 14-year-old girl, and a Tongan native, also living in Anaheim, who was convicted of sexually molesting two underage girls, immigration officials said.
"People who are in this country are in violation of the law already, but we were prioritizing criminal aliens, specifically convicted child sex offenders, because they present a very real threat," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Most of those arrested in the national sweep, which began May 26 and ended Tuesday, served time in county jails, Kice said. But instead of being deported after serving their sentences, they were released in the United States, she said.
"We endeavor to intercept them prior to their release," Kice said, "but the population of criminal aliens in county jails throughout Los Angeles is very large, and we know for a fact that in some of these cases they are not identified."
Officials said the raids focused on the most dangerous criminals, including gang members, child molesters and violent felons, as well as those who came back into the country after a judge had deported them. To locate the criminals, agents used databases such as the Megan's Law lists and worked with local law enforcement agencies.
"America's welcome does not extend to immigrants who come here to commit crimes," Julie Meyers, assistant secretary for the immigration agency, said at a Houston news conference. "ICE will leave no stone unturned in hunting down and deporting aliens who victimize our communities."
California had more arrests than any other state, including 402 in San Diego, 81 in San Francisco and 47 in Los Angeles, as well as the 36 in Orange County.
The convicted criminals targeted in Orange County included Kalisi Blake, 43, a Tongan native, and Romanian-born Gabriel Mircea Ionescue, 28. Both are awaiting deportation, officials said.
Most of the criminal illegal immigrants were arrested on administrative immigration violations, and about 830 of them have been deported, Kice said. One person, a Mexican whose record included a prior deportation and a conviction for child rape, is being criminally prosecuted on federal felony charges for re-entering the country after deportation, Kice said.
Among those nabbed in the national effort were 367 gang members, including street soldiers in the Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, authorities said. Agents caught a Salvadoran gang member, who had been convicted of stabbing and paralyzing a 13-year-old boy, working at a rental car company at Logan International Airport in Boston.
Immigration officials estimate that the nation's jails and prisons book about 630,000 illegal immigrants on criminal charges each year.
In Washington, where lawmakers are hashing out an immigration reform bill that would strengthen the nation's borders, at least one senator from a border state said the crackdown was a step in the right direction.
"These are exactly the kinds of offenders we must prevent from entering our country in the first place," said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who will be on the conference committee that will negotiate an immigration bill with the House of Representatives.
Times staff writer Nicole Gaouette and the Associated Press contributed to this report.