“God bless ’em,”‘ said Peter Nu ez, a former U.S. attorney in San Diego who teaches immigration policy at the University of San Diego. “They apparently decided to start with these fugitives. If you’re going to find one (illegal immigrant), you’re going to find 100.” Critics say the campaign against fugitive illegal immigrants ensnares many hard-working people who are in the country illegally but do not pose a danger. “They’re trying to sell it as something where they target (criminals), but it’s become part of a larger dragnet,” said Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s office in San Diego. Dubbed Operation Return to Sender, the crackdown began last May in cities across the nation. As of Feb. 23, it has resulted in 18,149 arrests of suspected illegal immigrants, most of whom were captured at home and in Hispanic neighborhoods. SAN DIEGO – More than one-third of 18,000 people arrested in a nearly yearlong federal crackdown on illegal immigrants were not the people authorities targeted, according to government figures. The so-called “collateral arrests” involved people picked up by immigration agents while seeking fugitives such as drug smugglers, thieves, drunk drivers and others who flouted deportation orders. When tracking down fugitives, authorities visit a suspect’s last known address and often find other immigrants, who are then asked to prove they are legally entitled to live in the United States. Supporters of such tactics say the government is just doing its job after years of neglect. But, according to figures from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 37 percent of those cases, or 6,696 arrests, were “collateral” captives – people who just happened to be present when agents arrived. On Tuesday, ICE completed a two-week sting that targeted 300 fugitives in San Diego. Agents found 62 fugitives but took 297 other people into custody, bringing the total arrests to 359. The illegal immigrants were returned to their home countries or jailed while awaiting a court hearing. The government defends the collateral arrests. “We can’t look the other way,” said Robin Baker, ICE’s director of detention and removals in San Diego. “We did that for too long.”160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!