- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2007

12:28 p.m.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Hundreds of illegal immigrants arrested over the past week in one of the biggest U.S. stings have been deported, but some are being held for possible criminal prosecution.

Federal authorities announced yesterday the results of a weeklong series of raids in the Los Angeles metropolitan area that targeted illegal immigrants who had previously been deported for crimes or defied final deportation orders.

Of the 761 people arrested in a five-county region since Jan. 17, more than 450 have already been removed from the country, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

More than half of those arrested in the sweeps were already in jail and are being turned over to federal authorities as their sentences expire, an ICE official said.

At least one person, however, was hit with a criminal case instead of being placed in civil deportation proceedings.

Erik Omar Galindo-Vazquez, a Mexican national taken in during the sweeps in Orange County, was charged with illegal re-entry to the United States after felony deportation - a federal crime than can carry up to 20 years in prison.

ICE officials said Galindo-Vazquez was deported in October 2005 after being detained in Arizona and was convicted six years earlier in Orange County for assault with a deadly weapon, a felony charge.

While federal law makes it a crime to enter the country illegally, only a fraction of the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants caught every year are ever prosecuted under criminal laws. There just aren’t enough agents, prosecutors and prison space.

So authorities go after serious offenders such as Galindo-Vazquez, whose rap sheets combine past deportations with convictions for crimes such as assault, murder and drug trafficking.

“We have to focus on the worst of the worst,” said Jim Hayes, director of the Los Angeles field office of ICE, whose agents are readying about 12 other cases for criminal prosecution stemming from the sweeps. “We can’t prosecute every single individual we come across.”

The raids made public yesterday were a major push within Operation Return to Sender, a crackdown that has resulted in 13,192 arrests nationwide since late May. Immigration officials have also identified 3,000 inmates in state and local jails who will be deported.

An estimated 600,000 illegal immigrants who have ignored deportation orders are still at large, said Virginia Kice, an ICE spokeswoman.

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