On Thursday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) held a ribbon-cutting ceremony at HSI’s new Angel Watch Center (AWC) in Fairfax, Virginia. As part of the ceremony, ICE Acting Director Matthew Albence explained that HSI special agents initiated more than 4,200 child exploitation cases in fiscal year 2019, resulting in approximately 3,771 criminal arrests, an increase of 18 percent compared to fiscal year 2018.
“ICE HSI analysts, investigators and special agents possess unique law enforcement authorities concerning cross-border criminal activity and have longstanding jurisdiction to investigate traveling sex offenders,” Albence said. “Today, we share some preliminary enforcement statistics for FY 2019, reflecting our relentless efforts to combat and eliminate heinous crimes against children, wherever they occur.”
Since 2007, HSI’s implementation of Operation Angel Watch has targeted individuals previously convicted of sexual crimes against a child, and who may pose a threat of committing child sex tourism. HSI’s establishment of the AWC is a crucial addition to its existing Cyber Crimes Center, strengthening the agency’s ability to safeguard innocent children from falling victim to dangerous predators.
“To be clear, the primary responsibility of the Angel Watch Center is to provide notification to foreign countries regarding the anticipated travel of convicted and registered child sex offenders,” Albence said. “Our goal is not to impede or affect legitimate travel in any way, but to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation.”
HSI partners with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) to proactively identify and target convicted child sex offenders who travel to foreign countries.
The agency holds a unique law enforcement authority concerning cross-border criminal activity and has longstanding jurisdiction to investigate traveling sex offenders. If a convicted child predator intends to travel to another country, Operation Angel Watch alerts foreign law enforcement partners through its attaché offices.
“We recognize that by itself, this is just an office building. Sure, it’s new, and the amenities are exceptional,” said USMS Deputy Assistant Director Richard Kelly. “But filled with those who come each day to do the work of the government, then it is far more than that. It is the place from which the angels take watch, and that is certainly worth showing up for.”
In general, HSI takes a victim-centered approach to its child exploitation investigations by working to identify victims, offenders, and possible locations based on information extracted from images and/or videos. In FY 2019, HSI identified or rescued 1,066 victims of child exploitation. Additionally, HSI works in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and other international, federal, state, and local agencies to help solve cases and rescue sexually exploited children.
“If only a fraction of notifications to foreign countries save a child from having to carry the lasting scars of sexual abuse and exploitation, the Angel Watch Center will have more than lived up to its name,” Albence said.
The AWC will work with the Department of State to identify those individuals who are required to have the child sex offender endorsement on their U.S. passport per International Megan’s Law.