Immigration agents arrested 280 people in California in their biggest push yet to round up suspected illegal immigrants with criminal records in local communities, authorities said Friday.
More than 400 agents and local law enforcement officers fanned out across the state in the three-day search led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"These are not people who we want walking our streets," ICE director John Morton said. "We're going to focus on those people who choose to pursue a life of crime in the United States rather than pursue the American dream of education, hard work and success."
The operation came four months after Morton said the agency's fugitive operations teams would increasingly focus on finding people with criminal records and would no longer use arrest quotas.
The teams arrested twice as many immigrants with criminal records in the 2009 fiscal year than during the year-earlier period, according to agency statistics.
On Wednesday, agents wearing hooded sweat shirts and jackets emblazoned with "ICE" clustered outside a row of apartment homes in Huntington Park in the morning cold to look for a gang member who was deported to Mexico in 2007 after serving time for vehicle theft.
Agents had learned his wife was here and collecting food stamps, leading them to believe he had returned to this country illegally.
Slinging rifles across their backs, they approached the front gate. One rapped on a window and said "Police!"
Minutes later, they emerged with a 40-year old man known as "Rascal" in handcuffs and drove him to Los Angeles to be fingerprinted, photographed and detained.
"As we bring these people into custody, we're also contributing to the reduction of crime in our local communities. That's really the thrust of it all," said Robert Naranjo, an assistant field office director for ICE's detention and removal operations in Los Angeles.
The man declined to be interviewed. ICE would not release his name because he did not face new criminal charges as of Friday but expected he would be charged next week with illegally re-entering the country, said agency spokeswoman Virginia Kice.
More than 80 percent of the people arrested this week had prior convictions for serious or violent crimes, according to ICE. Seventeen people will face federal charges for re-entering the country illegally after being deported.
The arrests carried out from Tuesday to Thursday were similar to those made in prior years by fugitive operations teams, which were created in 2003 to help reduce the number of immigrants who failed to obey deportation orders.
The latest sweep also netted six people who had deportation orders but no criminal record. No arrests were made of people who did not have a criminal history or a court order to leave the country, Kice said.
That marked a shift from several years ago, when immigrant advocates complained that ICE's teams were arresting illegal immigrants who happened to be home when authorities knocked on the door looking for someone else.
"It is tough to fully believe what is happening, but it certainly is a major step," said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
In a memo dated Tuesday, Morton said the teams' core mission is to arrest people with final deportation orders, including those with criminal records.
A copy of the guidelines obtained by The Associated Press directs teams to focus at least 70 percent of resources on these immigrants, followed by those who have re-entered the country illegally or who have committed crimes.
The memo also said agents will be trained twice a year on the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable search and seizures, and should not arrest immigrants who are sick, disabled or the sole caretakers of children.
There are 104 fugitive operations teams across the country. In 2006, each team was assigned to make 1,000 arrests a year. In August, Morton _ who took over his post this year _ said he had done away with the quotas.
Associated Press Writers Eileen Sullivan and Suzanne Gamboa contributed to this report from Washington.