Sparks man arrested in area immigration sweep
By FRANK X. MULLEN JR. • • May 29, 2008

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on Wednesday visited homes in Reno and Sparks in search of fugitive immigrants already under deportation orders and who have criminal records in the United States.

The operation yielded one arrest: a 43-year-old Sparks resident from El Salvador who has a record for robbery. But ICE agents said the investigations and arrest attempts will continue as part of a national effort to deport illegal immigrants who are under a judge's deportation order who remain in this country.

Jose D. Mejia, 43, was booked into Washoe County Jail late Wednesday. Mejia was under a final deportation order issued in September and probably will be deported to El Salvador, ICE agents said.

Mejia said he was surprised to be arrested. He said he missed his hearing because his mother was visiting from El Salvador, and when he realized he faced deportation, he hired a lawyer for $900 and paid a $400 "immigration fee."

"The lawyer said he would have the case reopened for me to get a work permit," he said. "But instead of a work permit, what arrived was (the ICE agents)."

Mejia said he doesn't mind going back to El Salvador and "starting from zero" or losing his truck and other possessions. But he said if he is deported his biggest heartache will be having to leave his fiancée, Berta Hernandez, who is five months pregnant with the couple's first child.

The agents waited Wednesday afternoon in a parking lot at a Sparks apartment building and blocked Mejia's red Toyota pickup truck when he arrived home. He surrendered immediately.

"A parking lot is the best way to take people down," said Steven M. Branch, field office director for the ICE Office of Detention and Removal region that includes Nevada. "It's where we can control the environment."

Visits to other suspected fugitive residences weren't as fruitful. The suspects weren't at home.

In an interview after his arrest, Menjia said he did not have a criminal record and had only been in the U.S. since 1987. However, he signed a waiver to allow his ICE file to be released. That file shows him as being in and out of the U.S. since 1982 and shows a conviction for aggravated robbery in Houston, Texas, on Feb. 21, 1983. He spent four years in a Texas state prison, according to his ICE file.

Branch said ICE has been making a concerted effort since 2003 to capture and deport illegal immigrants under deportation orders, especially those with criminal records. He said ICE teams are visiting jails and prisons in Nevada and elsewhere under its Criminal Alien Program to identify illegal immigrants who can be deported after serving their sentences.

In 2003, eight fugitive teams operated nationwide. That increased to 52 teams by the end of 2006 and 75 teams by the end of last year, ICE officials said. Six more teams are scheduled to be added this year, said Lori K. Haley, an ICE public affairs officer.

The nation's fugitive immigrant population declined for the first time in U.S. history to its current level at 595,000 fugitives, or 38,000 fewer than in October 2006, ICE officials said.

An ICE fugitive is defined as "an alien who has failed to report to a detention and removal officer after receiving a notice to do so."

Haley said fugitive operations teams give top priority to cases involving immigrants "who pose a threat to national security and community safety." That category includes members of street gangs, child sex offenders and immigrants with prior convictions for violent crimes.
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