Federal authorities are seeking to arrest as many as several hundred illegal immigrants from Iraq whom they view as potential security threats, law enforcement sources said Friday.
Immigration and FBI agents, who began making the arrests Thursday primarily on the East Coast, are targeting individuals suspected of violations that extend beyond immigration infractions, the sources said.
In Los Angeles and San Diego, home to two of the nation's largest Iraqi populations, several dozen Iraqi nationals may be taken into custody in the coming days and weeks, according to authorities. Several dozen immigrants have already been arrested in New York, Detroit, Boston and Washington by the FBI and the new Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to a federal law enforcement source.
Officials said that although those targeted by the federal agencies are not run-of-the-mill visa violators, there is a lack of specific evidence needed to file criminal charges. As a result, officials said, they are focusing on detaining and deporting the Iraqi nationals because of their immigration status.
Those being interviewed "are people we had some level of concern about," said one law enforcement official in Washington. "It's a very targeted group."
The new arrests, the FBI official added, are not part of ongoing terrorism investigations targeting individuals of various nationalities, including Iraqis, who are believed to have specifically helped terrorist groups with funding or logistics. "With those individuals, to the degree we think they are actively supporting terrorism, we will use every tool we can to get them off the streets," the official said.
The new arrests are also unrelated to the FBI interviews that began this week of about 11,000 Iraqi nationals who may have data on terrorism or information that could help the U.S. war in Iraq, authorities said.
"These are people who may have been to Iraq recently," said a Justice Department source. "When they lived in Iraq they may have come into contact with certain information and maybe could help us identify certain terrorist threats in America. These are mostly people who fled Saddam Hussein's Iraq."
However, the focus on the Iraqi population in the U.S. has caused deep concern among other Middle Eastern immigrants, many of whom also have been the subject of heightened law enforcement scrutiny since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.