- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Part two of three

LOS ANGELES — It is shortly before 4 a.m. when Jorge Field gathers his team in a deserted parking lot in South Central Los Angeles.

The nine men and one woman quietly strap themselves into flak jackets, meticulously check their weapons and listen attentively to a quick but precise briefing, as they prepare to hunt for five convicted criminal aliens and a suspected terrorist threat.

“Let’s go,” commands Mr. Field, the supervisory agent of this U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fugitive operations squad.


Traveling over the nearly abandoned streets at a quick pace with the lights out, the vehicles are guided over the radio by agent Loyda Rocha, who yesterday scouted the targets in this South Central Los Angeles corridor, now overrun by high unemployment and controlled by violent gangs.

No words are spoken. Everyone knows their assignment. The pre-dawn darkness is their ally.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” Miss Rocha shouts as she bangs on the first door. “Federal agents, open the door.”

She repeats the command in Spanish.

During the next 3-1/2 hours as part of an operation the agents refer to as “knock and talk,” the team will arrest three Mexican nationals and a Guatemalan, all convicted criminals, and an Israeli national sought by the U.S. government as a potential terrorist threat.

None offers any resistance. And no one is hurt, unlike other engagements in the past year when two agents were shot and wounded. Miss Rocha’s intelligence-gathering is spotless.

Tomorrow morning, the team will be ready to do it again, one of only 18 such squads nationwide seeking to arrest 80,000 criminal aliens — including killers, rapists, drug dealers and child molesters — and at least 320,000 “absconders,” foreign nationals who were ordered deported but disappeared.

Coordinated through an aggressive, but undermanned and underfunded ICE initiative known as the National Fugitive Operations Program, the 18 fugitive teams translate to barely 200 agents looking for nearly a half-million criminal aliens and absconders hiding in communities from Seattle and Los Angeles to Miami and New York City.

“How can we expect so few agents to effectively deal with such a vast problem?” asked Michael W. Cutler, a retired U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) senior agent who spent 31 years with the agency as a criminal investigator and intelligence specialist.

“The answer is, of course, we can’t,” he said.

A monthlong investigation by The Washington Times, which included interviews with ICE supervisors and agents, other law-enforcement officials and immigration experts from Washington state to California and Florida, showed that the agency has begun a reinvigorated program aimed at apprehending America’s most dangerous fugitive aliens.

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