- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2004

A Department of Homeland Security official, who last week criticized the arrest of 420 illegal aliens at inland locations in Southern California, yesterday told California lawmakers the department would consider the “sensitivities” of interior enforcement when making similar arrests in the future.

“While the DHS must prevent terrorists and instruments of terrorism from entering the United States, we must also enforce the immigration laws of the United States,” said Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson in a letter yesterday to Rep. Joe Baca, California Democrat, one of several members of the California delegation who complained about the arrests.

“I assure you that we will enforce these laws in a reasonable manner and will consider the sensitivities associated with interior enforcement of our immigration laws,” he said.

Mr. Hutchinson, in the letter, said that while the arrests were “within their legal authority,” he confirmed that they had not been approved in advance by officials in Washington, D.C., and violated long-standing U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) policy. It gives the Border Patrol what he called a “clear border nexus” that allows the agency to deal with “recent arrivals to the United States.”

The illegal aliens were arrested at public locations in inland Southern California communities over a two-week period beginning June 4 — taken into custody by a 12-member team known as the Mobile Patrol Group. Law-enforcement authorities said the arrests came as a result of intelligence operations that identified locations where suspected illegal aliens were believed to gather.

Much of the information, authorities said, came from local residents and state and local police. The team had targeted the aliens at public sites, including bus stops, in a 3,000-square-mile area of Southern California. Some of the arrests were made 100 miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border.

Mr. Baca, along with other members of the California delegation, met last week with Mr. Hutchinson to complain that the Border Patrol had “outstepped its jurisdiction” in the arrests. He described the aliens as victims of racial profiling and said the arrests had caused panic in the Hispanic community.

In a statement last week, Mr. Baca said Mr. Hutchinson “admitted” the immigration sweeps should have been coordinated through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which now oversees the interior enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws, and promised to review the matter.

Mr. Baca said Mr. Hutchinson told lawmakers that because most of the aliens involved had resided and worked in the United States for over a year, ICE should have handled the enforcement.

While Mr. Hutchinson said in the letter that immigration enforcement in the nation’s interior is the responsibility of ICE, officials at that agency have acknowledged that they lack the manpower and resources to target out-of-status aliens now living and working in the United States — estimated at between 8 million and 12 million.

Instead, ICE has focused on the ongoing apprehension of 80,000 criminal aliens in this country and 320,000 “absconders,” those foreign nationals who were ordered deported, but disappeared.

Last week, CBP Commissioner Robert C. Bonner said the Southern California arrests were legal and within the Border Patrol’s jurisdiction, adding that the agency would “do whatever is necessary to control our nation’s borders.”

Mr. Bonner said the patrol was “legally entitled to interdict and apprehend individuals illegally in the United States” and, in the future, “purely interior enforcement operations” by the Border Patrol would be approved at CBP headquarters.

Mr. Hutchinson had been expected to deliver his review in person, but took part yesterday in graduation ceremonies for the Federal Air Marshal Service in Atlantic City, N.J.

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