By Lisa Friedman, Washington Bureau

Under legislation backed Tuesday by a Ventura County congressman, the Department of Homeland Security would be able to deport immigrants who have not been convicted of committing crimes, if they belong to a group the government has designated as a criminal gang.

Under the bill, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles or another district also could secretly designate new criminal street gangs, making immigrants in those groups eligible for deportation. Any group that the government decrees to be a gang could not challenge the designation for up to two years.

Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Thousand Oaks, a lead co-sponsor of the bill, said it would "help to reclaim our neighborhoods by allowing the United States to immediately deport gang members who are in the United States illegally."

And the bill's author, Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., said current laws that allow immigrants to be deported after being convicted of an aggravated felony aren't good enough.

"There are those who want us to wait until we have victims to do something about it," Forbes said at a House Judiciary Subcommittee debate on his bill.

Critics questioned the need and legality of the Forbes proposal.

"The idea that we could criminalize people who have never committed a crime in their life is quite staggering," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.

David Cole, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, said it "imposes guilt by association, resurrecting the worst of the McCarthy era."

The bill also would:

Block visas for anyone whom a consular office or the Homeland Security Department believes is a member of a criminal gang.

Prevent immigrants from questioning the validity of the gang designation in a deportation hearing.

Allow groups designated as gangs to seek a judicial review in U.S. District Court, although they could not provide new evidence.

Rep. Howard Berman, D-Van Nuys, said he wants the Justice Department to review the measure.

"I can't think of a group of people I would rather see removed from the country," he said about gang members. "I certainly agree with the goals, but I'd like to see what the Justice Department says about its constitutionality."