ICE operation team targets undocumented immigrants with criminal past

PHOENIX - It's a side of the Department of Homeland Security most people will never see, that is unless you're an illegal immigrant with a criminal rap sheet. "126 Fugitive Operation Team" is out on the streets every day, looking for those who may be a threat to our public safety.

"The individuals we have been targeting have all been convicted of crimes here in the United States," Enrique Lucero, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office director in Phoenix, said. "Many of them have been deported previously."  

ABC15 had an opportunity to ride with the team to get an inside look into how they operate.  

"This is not a special operation, it's something we do every day, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the evening," Lucero said.

The team nets an average of about 40-50 people statewide every month. The cases are prioritized based on public safety. The common thread is everyone who is targeted has broken U.S. law. Anything from a serious misdemeanor like an extreme DUI to those with warrants out in other countries.

"We can't take the chance of allowing them to remain in the U.S. because they may commit another crime," said Lucero.

The first person on the list was a Nicaraguan man convicted of drug charges involving cocaine. He also assaulted a peace officer with a deadly weapon.

Surveillance teams had been watching the man and were familiar with his routine. ICE officers initiated a vehicle stop as the man left his home at around 5 a.m. for work. He complied and was cooperative. The man was taken into custody. 

The second arrest was a Mexican man convicted of stealing cars, and possessing burglary tools. He was also picked up in a vehicle stop, as he left home for his job as a welder. ICE officials said he had also been deported once, and crossed the border illegally again. This man consented to giving ABC15 an interview.

Greg Luqueno admitted that he had broken into cars.

"It happened when I was a minor, I have changed a lot, I mean, when I was a kid, I didn't think about what I was doing," said Luqueno.

Now he is thinking. Worried about his wife and three children and how they would pay the bills with him now facing deportation proceedings.

"I ain't trying to do something bad out here, I'm just trying to get something for my family," said Luqueno.

He also admitted that if he was deported, he would try to re-enter the United States again.

"I'm not going to lie to you, I got no one out there, I don't know how I'm going to make it there, I can't," he said. 

ICE officers sworn to do the job know they're under constant scrutiny, facing daily criticism from immigrant rights groups who accuse them of ripping families apart. The Phoenix field office director said they sympathized with the families, and with the fact that the immigrants they were arresting wanted a better life, but breaking the law did not fit in with the American dream. Re-entering the country illegally is a felony crime.   Even those accused of drunk driving are considered a threat to the public.

"We're making the public safer" said Lucero. "DUI is one of our highest priorities, DUIs have caused a massive amount of fatalities across the nation, we're trying to protect the public." 

The third arrest was a man from the U.K. who had overstayed his welcome. The man lived in an upscale Scottsdale neighborhood and owned an Italian restaurant nearby.

"The public perception may be that we're only targeting Mexican nationals, but that's not true," Lucero said. "We have 40 different nationalities in custody any given day right here in Arizona."

Although U.K. citizens do not need a visa to enter the U.S. they can only stay for a certain amount of time. ICE officials said he had stayed well beyond that limit, and also committed crimes during that time.

"He's been charged with sexual assault, but not convicted, he's also had multiple DUI's," Lucero said. 

Those arrested are now being held in an ICE holding facility. The U.S. Attorney's Office will review the cases of the two men who re-entered the country after being deported. The man from the U.K will face a hearing with an immigration judge.

Deportation seemed to be the price to pay for those undocumented immigrants who wanted to live by their own rules. The desire of an American dream, pushed farther away, by breaking U.S. law. ICE officers working on the Fugitive Operations Team said their job was never done. There will be new cases and new "targets" to go after tomorrow, and the day after that. ICE officers also know, they will inevitably see some of the same faces back on the streets again, as the border is a merry-go-round. 

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