Get a better net

In rounding up 1,700 illegal immigrants convicted of crimes or linked to criminal gangs -- including about 400 in the Los Angeles area -- the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has made life safer for the residents of terrorized neighborhoods. But the four-month sweep, part of Operation Community Shield, also demonstrates the need for comprehensive immigration reform, including legal status for most of the estimated 12 million people in this country illegally.

ICE persuasively argues that it did not overreach in arresting the vast majority of the immigrants who are now targeted for deportation before or after a criminal trial. It has been obvious for years that illegal immigrants provide much of the muscle for gangs such as MS-13 and La Mirada Loco. Most of those seized in the sweep seem to be gang members and criminals, including a notorious sex offender. Of 1,157 illegal immigrants arrested in California, 595 had outstanding deportation orders and 346 had prior criminal convictions.

The arrests apparently were surgical strikes, not a carpet bombing of communities where illegal immigrants reside peacefully or work to feed their families. Certainly they bear little resemblance to the disruptive raids on meatpacking plants, garment factories and other businesses with large, undocumented workforces. Those operations, which seem motivated by a desire to prove that the government is tough on illegal immigration, disrupt the lives of the very families that would be legalized under comprehensive reform legislation.

Gangbangers, gunmen and child molesters are obviously in a different category. Even so, their illegal status is what enables ICE to arrest and deport them. It’s reassuring that so many of those seized recently have criminal records or outstanding deportation orders that in some cases followed criminal convictions. But under the law, even illegal immigrants without criminal records can be detained and deported.

That reality complicates efforts to combine law enforcement and immigration control. No doubt many of the young men arrested in the sweep deserve the designation of gang member, but the term “gang associate” is disturbingly vague. As long as the defining characteristic of those arrested is their illegal status, even the most carefully designed dragnet risks pulling in innocent friends or relatives of gang members.


The remedy is not to relax efforts to find and deport criminals and gang members from other countries. It is to enact legislation like the comprehensive measure scuttled last year in the U.S. Senate. That would legalize otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants and require ICE and other agencies to focus exclusively on truly undesirable people -- those who by their criminal acts have forfeited even a moral claim to remain in this country.