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    INS rounds up 32 illegal aliens in Tampa Bay area

    The operation targeted dangerous felons. Some have already been deported.

    By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 11, 2002


    TAMPA -- As part of a federal roundup, 32 criminal and illegal aliens living in the Tampa Bay area are headed back to their homelands.

    The operation, dubbed "BayOps," targeted dangerous felons who had served prison time or violated U.S. immigration laws.

    Some non-American citizens convicted of felonies are immediately deported upon completing their prison sentences. But others are released back into the community because there are not enough facilities to hold them while they await deportation.

    For Operation BayOps, Immigration and Naturalization Service agents identified a group of suspects who had a history of violence or felony convictions and had exhausted their legal avenues to stay in the country. Some of the suspects came to the agents' attention after they applied for government benefits, said John Mata, INS assistant district director for detention and removal in Florida.

    The suspects -- 26 men and six women -- had committed crimes ranging from domestic violence and drug trafficking to robbery and committing a lewd act on a child under 16 years old. None was accused of terrorist activities.

    Operation BayOps was not a reaction to last year's terrorist attacks, Mata said. Roundups have been going on for years. About 90 percent of the 100,000 or so deportation cases the INS completed nationwide in 2000 involved criminals, according to INS statistics.

    But instead of working on the problem on an ad hoc basis, the agency in Florida has pooled its resources to allow a group of agents to concentrate on specific areas, Mata said.

    Twenty-four of the aliens lived in Hillsborough County, and two lived in Pinellas. The others were from Sarasota, Manatee, Polk and Hardee counties.

    The suspects came from 19 countries. Six were from Honduras, four from Guatemala and three from the Dominican Republic. Several have already been sent back to their countries. The rest remain in custody awaiting deportation.

    Mata could not say how many criminal aliens live in the Tampa Bay area. INS, with help from local and state law enforcement, will be carrying out similar operations in other Florida cities, he said.

    -- Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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