As part of a weeklong sweep, U.S. immigration authorities arrested more than 700 foreign-born inmates and immigration violators throughout Southern California, and immediately deported half of them, officials said Tuesday.
Agents arrested 338 immigration violators in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties, including a father and son wanted in the 2004 killing of a man in Sinaloa, Mexico, officials said.
About 150 people were arrested solely because they were illegal immigrants.
But most of the arrests were of 423 foreign-born inmates who were detained by immigration authorities upon their release from jail and then deported, said Jim Hayes, field director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement's detention and removal operations in Los Angeles.
Hayes did not specify how the targets of the crackdown were selected but said that it was part of a nationwide campaign launched by the agency last summer to curb illegal immigration.
"The goal of our enforcement effort is twofold," Hayes said. "First, it's about restoring integrity to our nation's immigration system. Second, it's about safeguarding our communities from those who brazenly disregard our laws and prey upon other members of the immigrant community."
Most of the immigrant violators apprehended were from Mexico, but the enforcement campaign yielded the arrests of people from 14 countries, including India, Japan and Poland.
Hayes said 24 of the violators were repeat offenders and could face up to 20 years in federal prison.
"We think that's a significant deterrent," he said.
But Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said such enforcement efforts are ineffective in the long run at fixing a "fundamentally flawed" immigration system, and predicted that many of the apprehended immigrants would end up returning to their families in the U.S.
"This is more of a show of force than a serious attempt to deal with an immigration system that just doesn't work," she said.
Hector Villagra, office director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Orange County, said one major concern is that those who are targeted by the operation are not denied their due process rights.
"If state and local police are just arresting people for traffic violations and then handing them over to ICE, then you're, in effect, short-circuiting the whole system," Villagra said.
Immigration officials said the agency had increased its staffing at county jails to identify inmates who were in the U.S. illegally and eligible for deportation. In Orange County, sheriff's deputies are authorized to check inmates' immigration status when they are booked.
Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said the agency is under pressure to step up enforcement because of highly charged political debate over illegal immigration.
"But ultimately," Meissner said, "effective immigration enforcement is not going to occur without bigger changes in immigration law overall."