Jose Martinez Cornejo did nothing wrong. Just ask him.
Well, OK, the 39-year-old admits, there was that one arrest for domestic violence. Oh, and that time, years ago, when he "supposedly" committed some robberies. But he was innocent.
Mostly, he has stayed out of trouble, he claims -- aside from a couple of traffic tickets -- since he came to the United States from El Salvador in 1986.
"I worked in this country for 20 years and paid taxes. I live with my mom," a handcuffed Martinez Cornejo said tearfully in Spanish Thursday while waiting to be processed by federal immigration officials at U.S. Department of Homeland Security offices near Pecos and Sunset roads.
The foot-thick file on Martinez Cornejo kept by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials tells a different story. He is a felon whose rap sheet includes arrests for domestic violence, theft and burglary. He also was ordered deported back to El Salvador a few years ago but never left the country.
That's why he was among those targeted during ICE's most-recent three-day fugitive operation in the Las Vegas Valley that netted 38 arrests. The operation focused on people who had prior criminal convictions and failed to leave the country after being ordered to do so.
Nationwide this year, fugitive operations teams nabbed 15,747 illegal immigrants who also had criminal records.
ICE invited the Review-Journal and a TV news crew to tag along with one of its six-agent fugitive operations teams for a few hours Thursday, the final day of the operation.
The team started before dawn at the ICE offices, where agents -- wearing bulletproof vests with the words "POLICE ICE" imprinted on the back -- were briefed on the morning's targets: five men who had been convicted of various charges including drug trafficking, illegally carrying a concealed weapon and burglary.
"These are not your regular, 'I just crossed the border to make a living for my family' guys," said the lead agent.
ICE officials asked that agents not be named .
Martinez Cornejo was the first target. The agents rode in several vehicles to his ex-wife's Henderson apartment, where he was last seen.
The six agents, along with three supervisors, an ICE spokeswoman, two reporters, two videographers and a photographer approached the apartment. Neighbors, including a half-dozen Mormon missionaries who apparently lived upstairs, gawked.
"We're not very inconspicuous, are we?" an agent said.
Martinez Cornejo wasn't there. His ex-wife said she kicked him out, and she had no idea where he was .
The agents moved on to the next target, a man who had several DUI convictions and was supposed to be in an apartment near McCarran International Airport. But he wasn't there, either. Instead, the agents talked to the target's brother, who said the man was in Los Angeles, visiting their father. The agents moved on.
"We're burning daylight right now," said Tom Feeley, ICE's deputy field office director.
The next target was a 40-year-old Brazilian man agents had been after for a long time. They recently got a tip that the man, who had been known to sell methamphetamine, was living with his adult daughter in a run-down apartment near Maryland Parkway and Russell Road. When agents arrived, the man's sleepy, barefoot daughter told them her father was living in a unit upstairs.
The daughter called the man on the phone and eventually coaxed him out of the apartment. He was heavily tattooed and shaking, and asked that the cameras be kept at a distance.
As the agents led him away in handcuffs from five family members, including a young boy, the man called out, "I love you. I love you."
Meanwhile, an agent thought he had located Martinez Cornejo at his mother's apartment about a mile away. When the agent called the apartment, Martinez Cornejo picked up the phone.
As agents approached the apartment, two girls with backpacks watched.
"Good morning," an agent called to them. "Have a good day at school."
Martinez Cornejo gave the agents no trouble and was quickly arrested. He walked, handcuffed, to ICE's van with a swagger.
Agents struck out with the last two targets of the day, neither of whom were at home. They headed to the office to process the two they captured. Several hours had passed.
Martinez Cornejo agreed to talk to reporters while he waited to be taken to the North Las Vegas Detention Center, which houses ICE inmates awaiting deportation or immigration court proceedings.
Martinez Cornejo said he had done nothing wrong, aside from that domestic violence incident and the "supposed" robberies. Still, immigration officials revoked his work permit several years ago, and he lost his job working conventions. Since then, he had been getting work here and there as a day laborer.
Martinez Cornejo said he has three children, two of whom live in Las Vegas with their mother. The third is a son, 19, who is in the U.S. Marine Corps and living in Virginia, he said.
"My son is defending the country that is doing this to me," he said.
Martinez Cornejo wasn't surprised he got picked up by ICE. He knew he was supposed to leave the country years ago.
"I stayed. I don't have anything in El Salvador. My kids are here. My family is here. What am I supposed to do?"
An agent allowed him to call his mother. Martinez Cornejo told her he was going to try to find a lawyer who will take his case for free. If all else fails, he said, he is not afraid of getting deported.
"It doesn't help me to be scared," he said, his eyes filling with tears. "I'm not going to cry."
Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at email@example.com.