Immigration beefs up hunt for illegals

5:46 AM, Apr 24, 2007   |    comments
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More door-to-door searches and workplace raids for illegal immigrants are planned in Minnesota now that more money is available for such moves, an official with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement says. "You'll definitely see more large-scale (employer) operations," said Claude Arnold, who heads investigations at the regional office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "It's one of our priorities," he said. "We got money and resources for worksite enforcement -- and we will get more." More employers also will be arrested, Arnold said. "When you see an executive wearing handcuffs," it can have an impact, he said. Congress approved a 17 percent increase in ICE's overall budget nationally last year but funds for detention and removal of illegal immigrants nearly doubled, according to an analysis by the American Immigration Lawyers Association. As enforcement is increased, however, immigrant advocates say many legal residents are frightened as they also are getting caught up as agents search for illegals. "People are scared. "They (agents) are looking for specific people," said Karen Ellingson, a veteran immigration attorney from St. Paul. "But a lot of people are being swept up just because they're there." The increased budget will enable the ICE's Bloomington regional office to hire more agents and buy vehicles, computers and other tools, said Scott Baniecke, field officer in charge of enforcement. The regional office covers Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska. "In the past years, we were understaffed," Baniecke said. "This is a breath of fresh air." The ICE is now pursuing its original mission more aggressively after several years of focusing on counterterrorism, he said. The refocusing means searching for and arresting illegal immigrants, especially those with criminal convictions and orders for deportations; combatting identity fraud; busting employers, and investigating transnational gangs. Spokesman Tim Counts said the ICE's enforcement procedures have been affirmed by the courts repeatedly. While Counts says the ICE won't reveal statistics related to increases in staffing or budget, the American Immigration Lawyers Association reports that the agency's national funding for detention and removal of illegal immigrants more than doubled from $1.6 billion to $3.8 billion from fiscal 2006 to fiscal 2007 and funding for worksite enforcement tripled to $30 million during the same period. The Bloomington ICE office has arrested 690 people in the past six months, compared with 455 arrested in fiscal 2006 and 376 in fiscal 2005. Between October 2006 and March of this year, the regional ICE office deported 1,427 people and arrested 1,846 people who weren't criminals for immigration violations. Those numbers are a source of both pride and frustration for Minnesota's top immigration enforcers. Arnold and Baniecke believe they're making communities safer, but say immigration agents are usually portrayed as the bad guys. "I've put a large number of bad people in jail," said Arnold, who worked in Phoenix, Chicago and Washington D.C. before becoming the top investigator in Minnesota last month.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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