ICE Anti-Gang Surge Nabs 517

By Jessica M. Vaughan on January 29, 2010

Last week ICE completed its largest anti-gang operation ever, arresting 517 people in 83 cities across the country (476 were involved in gangs). Dubbed Project Big Freeze, ICE teamed with other federal and local law enforcement agencies to target gangsters involved in cross-border drug trafficking, under an ongoing program known as Operation Community Shield.

The operation is remarkable because it illustrates the long arm and wide reach of international drug trafficking organizations into this country. Even small cities, such as Richfield, Minn., population 35,000, have problems with immigrant gangs. The Richfield police department has only 44 officers, whose authority goes no farther than the city limits. Its chief, Barry Fritz, welcomed the opportunity to work with ICE and take advantage of immigration law enforcement tools, its immigrant gang expertise, and tougher federal statutes to bust these gangs.

The Dallas police department says that 85% of the city's homicides have had a nexus to gangs, drugs, and guns. Assistant Chief Charles Cato credits their years of participation in Operation Community Shield with helping to achieve the city's lowest homicide rate in 50 years. They emphasize that the Dallas PD-ICE partnership has not been one-off just for periodic surges like Big Freeze, but continues on a daily basis.

Until recently, many immigrant gangs, although violent, were more self-contained and their activities were limited to relatively petty crime. Now many have become what ICE chief John Morton describes as "foot soldiers of illegal drug activity" that is linked to the powerful and brutal cartels based in Mexico and Central America. Or as explained by Lt. Paul Cleveland, head of the Northern Virginia Gang Task Force, instead of shooting and hacking other people for fun or because they don't like what they're wearing, many of the immigrant gangsters today shoot, hack, smuggle, extort, and kidnap because it's their job. Few local LEAs are equipped to tackle these more organized syndicates and their business associates without assistance from ICE and other federal agencies.

Operation Community Shield has been a major success for ICE. (For more on the results, see "Taking Back the Streets: ICE and Local Law Enforcement Target Immigrant Gangs"). Besides the obvious public safety benefits of disrupting and dismantling the notoriously violent and socially destructive immigrant gangs, the program has helped the agency to build stronger ties with state and local LEAs, many of which previously had little or limited constructive contact with the immigration agency. Sustaining and further institutionalizing this teamwork will greatly benefit ICE and the communities that are threatened by crime problems linked to illegal immigration.

But policymakers at all levels must also address some of the underlying issues, including:

  1. Gaps in border security that are exploited by drug trafficking organizations and permit the return of gangsters previously booted out.

  2. Sanctuary laws.

  3. Inadequate and overly restricted funding for ICE programs that involve local partners.

  4. New policies that downplay or tolerate garden variety (i.e. administrative) immigration law violations in the absence of other serious criminal convictions.