Video: Sex crimes against children

By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/3/2005 9:16:39 PM ET 2005-03-04T02:16:39

Less than two years ago, an agency of the Homeland Security Department set out on a simple mission — to round up and deport immigrants who committed sex crimes against children. Thursday, the government announced that its effort has reached a milestone, one that demonstrates how serious the problem is.

Since July 2003, agents of ICE — Immigration and Customs Enforcement — have rounded up a surprising 5,000 people, nearly all accused of the sexual exploitation of children.

Some were picked up in the middle of the night, some after police chases. Others were put in handcuffs on the street or where they work.

"It is clear that the need is greater than we ever understood when we launched this program just 20 months ago," says ICE agent Michael Garcia.

Most were immigrants whose sex crimes made them deportable. But some were United States citizens.

One 61-year-old Baltimore man was arrested under new federal sexual tourism laws. He pleaded guilty to traveling to Asia to have sex with young children.

Internet ring foiled
In January 2004, agents also broke up a huge global Internet child pornography ring. The two men from Belarus who ran it pleaded guilty just this week in New Jersey, in a case that led to more than 1,000 arrests of the porn ring's customers.

"These predators come from all walks of life," says Garcia. "We have had people in positions of trust in their communities: Teachers, doctors, school bus drivers, even police officers."

Thursday, members of Congress signaled that they're prepared to give the roundups — called Operation Predator — more support.

‘Tip of the iceberg’
"I think it is the tip of the iceberg, and I think that's the greater tragedy, is that there may be more than we might imagine," says Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.

But some immigration lawyers, like Jeff Joseph of Denver, say the program reaches too far, by arresting technical violators, like someone who has sex with a barely underage girlfriend.

"Operation Predator makes no distinction between a violent sexual predator and a person who's engaging in consensual sex with his girlfriend," says Joseph. "And that's the problem with the program."

Still, the program has widespread support in Congress. And agents say they have so many investigative leads now, they can't even follow them all.

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