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updated 4/30/2010 6:17:54 PM ET 2010-04-30T22:17:54

Federal agents arrested 596 immigrants with criminal records during a three-day immigration enforcement sweep across the Southeast, authorities announced Friday in what they described as their biggest operation yet.

The three-day sweep — dubbed Operation Cross Check by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials — was the largest the agency has ever conducted targeting foreign nationals convicted of crimes. The convicted criminals have already served their sentences and authorities will now work to deport them.

"As a result of the operation, communities around the Southeast are safer than they were before," said Felicia Skinner, an ICE field director.

The sting involved nearly 400 federal and local law enforcement officers who sought out convicted criminals in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Puerto Rico.

Authorities say they didn't single out a specific nationality — those arrested came from at least 60 nations in Latin America, Asia, Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Video: Deportation: The flip side of immigration The immigrants will likely face immediate deportation or an immigration hearing, although at least 12 of those arrested during the surge may also be charged by prosecutors because of prior immigration arrest records. Those offenders could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of felony re-entry.

The people nabbed in the sweeping sting had been convicted of a broad array of charges. Three of them were convicted murderers, 26 were sex offenders and more than 250 were convicted on drug charges. Authorities say they targeted convicted criminals because they are the most likely to re-offend.

"Those who come to the United States to prey upon our neighbors and communities will be prosecuted for their crimes and ultimately returned to their home countries," said John Morton, the assistant Homeland Security secretary for ICE. "The results of this week's operation demonstrate ICE's commitment to that principle."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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