Several members of Orange County’s congressional delegation said Friday, Aug. 18, that they are working on ways to combat flash-mob style retail thefts and a wave of home burglaries that recently have hit high-end department stores and residences in Orange County.
“We’re seeing these terrible images of stores being broken into,” said Rep. Young Kim, R-Anaheim Hills. “We’ve been seeing this maybe, once-a-week, in the past, but now we’re seeing this every day, too frequently.”
During a public discussion in Irvine, Kim and fellow Orange County Reps. Michelle Steel and Lou Correa told members of the Orange County Taxpayers Association that they’re working on everything from new legislation to international diplomacy as a way to end the crime sprees that recently have hit hard in Southern California.
Just days before the meeting, an estimated $100,000 worth of designer handbags was stolen during a mob theft from the Gucci store in Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza. That incident, which allegedly involved up to ten thieves, followed a string of similar robberies in July, when representatives of Kay’s Jewelers in Irvine Spectrum and Jewels By Alan in the Irvine Park Place shopping center told police that they lost more than $1 million worth of merchandise during separate mob-style thefts at their stores.
Another type of crime — described by some in law enforcement as “burglary tourism” — also has escalated recently in Southern California, where several homeowners have been victimized by thieves described by authorities as professional burglars from South America.
The uptick in high-profile crime has prompted action locally. Gov. Gavin Newsom to ask the California Highway Patrol to triple its resources in the Los Angeles region and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass has established a task forced aimed at cracking down on retail theft.
Now, legislators from Washington, D.C. are stepping in.
When asked what can be done at the federal level to curb the recent crime spree, Kim said, “pass my bill.” She was referring to the Improving Federal Investigations of Organized Retail Crime Act, which Kim introduced earlier this year. The legislation, she said, calls on federal, state and local investigators “to better cooperate” by sharing information in a timely manner as a way to beat back criminals who use location and the complex visa system to evade authorities.
In May, three people were arrested in Tustin, which is part of Kim’s 40th congressional district, on suspicion of robbing a jewelry store. In a separate incident, six men were charged last December as suspects in a smash-and-grab robbery in which they allegedly stole roughly $87,000 worth of jewelry from The Jewelry Exchange in Tustin in April.
Kim, whose 40th district includes communities in Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, added that federal legislation is needed because the stolen goods often are sold for cash in different states, making them federal crimes.
Steel, whose 45th district stretches from La Habra to Huntington Beach, talked about the sophisticated nature of the organized crime seen in Orange County, namely “burglary tourism.” Authorities are using that moniker because they believe the criminals include Chilean nationals who are entering Southern California through a visa waiver program known as ESTA, or Electronic System for Travel Authorization, which allows citizens of 40 countries to travel to the U.S. for tourism or business for 90 days or less without first obtaining a visa.
Since ESTA visas were established, in 2009, the program has been used by hundreds of thousands of visitors. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, during a recent visit to Orange County, said he would consider pushing for Congress to strip funding for the ESTA visa program for Chileans, though it’s unclear what percentage of people holding ESTA visas have committed any crimes.
Steel said the issue is complicated, but she did suggest that the retail thefts and residential burglaries are linked.
“This isn’t a simple issue that is going to be corrected by one law,” Steel said. “Through these visa waiver program … some criminals go through not just retail shops but residential homes.”
Correa, whose 46th district includes parts of Santa Ana and Anaheim, also suggested at least some of the crime is connected to ESTA visitors from Chile, and said he’s working on a bill that calls for more effective data sharing between the two countries. He said he also recently wrote to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging them to “work with the Chilean government to improve the data sharing practices.”
“We have to have law enforcement in these Latin American countries to cooperate with us,” Correa said. “I’m going to Latin America next week, to Salvador and Guatemala, and I’m going to address these issues.”
Friday’s event was the third quarterly installment of the policy panels hosted by the Orange County Taxpayers Association. Sara Catalan, the group’s CEO, said the organization’s policy focus has been combatting legislation that she views as anti-business and anti-housing and supporting policies that would boost job growth.