WASHINGTON – Federal immigration officials arrested 64 criminals in Arizona last week as part of a nationwide, six-day sweep that netted more than 3,100 people in the country illegally.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said Monday that the latest Operation Cross Check led to arrests in all 50 states on charges ranging from murder to kidnapping, drug trafficking and child abuse. ICE Director John Morton said the operation also focused on those who had violated deportation orders.
Morton took the opportunity to tout the Obama administration’s decision to target criminals before deporting undocumented immigrants with no convictions. He said the border has “never been safer.”
“Focusing our resources on criminals and on the criminal justice system is just plain common sense, and we will continue to do it over and over,” Morton said.
An ICE spokeswoman for Arizona said 64 of the arrests were made in the state: 58 in Phoenix and six in Tucson.
“Contrary to the accusations of some, we are not refusing to enforce the law, nor are we targeting families in low-priority cases,” Morton said. “Instead, we are pursuing a sensible set of priorities designed to promote public safety, promote the integrity of the system and make the best use of our limited resources.”
Morton said ICE data shows that more than half of the 400,000 removals in the past year were criminal offenders. The 216,000 criminal aliens deported last year was up 89 percent from fiscal 2008, he said.
This was the third Operation Cross Check. The first two were in May and September 2011.
ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Director Thomas Homan said the department is looking to exceed that number this year.
“In my 28 years of immigration enforcement, our strategic focus on criminal aliens is the most effective I’ve ever seen,” Homan said, adding that communities are safer because of such efforts.
But Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, called it a “gross exaggeration” to say the border is safe. He pointed to traffickers on the border and residents who feel unsafe, adding that it’s almost impossible to define “safety.”
Mehlman said that while many agencies and governments had made the prosecution of criminal aliens a priority, only ICE has decided to downplay prosecution of those who aren’t criminals.
“Basically what you’re saying is if you violate our immigration law, but you don’t go on to commit some other sort of serious crime, we don’t care,” he said.
Mehlman said that deporting all those found in the country illegally, not just the criminals, would deter people from coming here illegally in the first place. He added that more-aggressive punishment of employers who hire undocumented immigrants would bring in revenue and give ICE more resources to deal with an “out of control” problem.
Morton said the country does need to address immigration with comprehensive reforms, such as the DREAM Act. But for now, he said, ICE needs to do the best it can with what it has. That means cracking down on criminals and those who have violated deportation orders.
“It’s just good law enforcement,” Morton said. “It’s a good use of our limited resources.”