Florida officials said Wednesday that nearly 40% of the people arrested in one part of the state in a recent operation cracking down on child sex exploitation were in the U.S. illegally — amid continued concerns from Republicans about criminals and sex offenders coming in across the southern border.
Officials said that seven out of 19 people arrested in Bay County, Florida, were in the country illegally. Five have no record showing lawful entry into the U.S. One man was admitted on a B-2 visitors visa that expired in 2021, and another was admitted on a J-1 student visa that also expired in 2021.
Of those arrested in Bay County, 14 were arrested for traveling to engage in sexual activity with a minor. Five were arrested for possession of child pornography.
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In this undated image, Florida officials announce arrests in Operation Cross Country XIII. (Bay County Sheriffs Office)
Operation Cross Country XIII was a nationwide operation involving the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). Nationally it led to the identification or arrest of 126 suspects of child sexual exploitation and human trafficking offenses.
That operation also located 59 missing children during the two-week operation.
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“Sex traffickers exploit and endanger some of the most vulnerable members of our society and cause their victims unimaginable harm,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement announcing the results of the national operation. “This operation, which located 59 actively missing children, builds on the tremendous work the FBI has undertaken over many years to rescue minor victims and arrest those responsible for these unspeakable crimes.”
In the operation headquartered in Bay County, the operation was held over a three-day period in July and involved cooperation between the FBI, HSI and Florida law enforcement.
Those arrested are the latest illegal immigrants to be tied to sex offenses, amid an ongoing national debate about the border crisis that the U.S. has been dealing with since 2021.
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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis arrives at a campaign event on Monday, June 26, 2023 in Eagle Pass TX. (Sergio Flores/Washington Post via Getty Images)
Republican critics, of whom Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been one of the loudest, have accused the Biden administration of making America less safe by adopting “open border” policies. Critics have noted the enormous number of migrants who have evaded Border Patrol. There were approximately 600,000 “gotaways” in FY 2022, officials have estimated.
The administration has denied the accusations, saying it is focused on rebuilding an asylum system decimated by the prior administration, while narrowing the focus of its ICE agents to focus on illegal immigrants who are public safety and national security threats. It has also called on Congress to pass a sweeping immigration reform bill and provide additional funding as it has requested. It has also touted its anti-smuggling operations in the U.S. and with international partners.
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Last week, Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens said that agents had encountered three sex offenders in a single day.
On Thursday, Texas Department of Public Safety announced that its troopers had arrested an illegal immigrant from Mexico for the possession or promotion of child pornography.