Grower likens INS raid to Waco 2,000-acre nursery swarmed by agents

September 19, 1996|By Joe Mathews and Dail Willis | Joe Mathews and Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

KENNEDYVILLE -- Le Verne Kohl didn't pay much attention Monday afternoon when he saw planes and helicopters flying over his 2,000-acre nursery in Kent County.

But he remembered the flights Tuesday at noon when 33 armed agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service swarmed his business, blocking every exit, impounding his employment records and shutting off telephone service for hours while they detained 86 Hispanic immigrant workers employed by Angelica Nurseries Inc.

"We had Waco over there, except we didn't have the fire and the shooting," Kohl, Angelica's president and co-owner, said yesterday afternoon as he described the raid to a friend and fellow agriculturalist, Floyd Price, over lunch at Vonnie's Restaurant.

Kohl, 63, said he did not understand why his nursery, one of the nation's 10 largest, was raided, or why agents told him that there is a pending criminal investigation linked to the raid. INS agents declined to comment yesterday on the investigation or the raid and would not confirm that they had flown over the Kohl property Monday.

Kohl said that he was meticulous about documentation for his 240 workers, most of whom are immigrants -- "We stay on top of that as closely as we can," he said.

He said he recruits his workers through the Bravo Labor Agency in Texas, which specializes in immigrant labor. Workers' documents are checked when they are recruited in Texas and again when they arrive in Maryland, he said. Jose A. Bravo, the agency's owner, declined to comment yesterday.

Tuesday's raid, the first at the family business his father moved from Angelica, Pa., to Kennedyville in 1957, came at the busiest time of the year for Angelica, which sells shrubs and trees for re-wholesaling, he said.

"This will cripple us, believe me," he said.

Only one worker of the 86 detained by INS was allowed to return to her home at the nursery after the raid. Alicia Flores, 29, who has a 6-month-old son born in the United States and two other children born in Mexico, opted for a hearing before a judge to determine if she can stay in the United States. The other 85 detainees chose deportation, according to Kohl, and will be flown back to Mexico tomorrow.

In an interview yesterday, Flores said her husband had bought forged documents for them in California, and they had used those bogus documents when they were hired by Angelica. Her husband was among those who will be taken back to Mexico tomorrow, she said, adding that she expects the whole family eventually will return to Mexico.

Flores said she chose to have a hearing even though her papers are forged because that allowed her to return to her home at the nursery Tuesday night and feed her youngest child.

"It was scary," she said of the raid. "They were yelling 'Shut up! Sit down!' I told them I had two kids at school, and a baby I was nursing, and they told me, 'It doesn't matter.'"

Flores was working in the plant propagation area when INS agents entered the greenhouse Tuesday. She said agents asked only Hispanic workers to produce papers, even though Kohl employs blacks and whites as well.

Benedict J. Ferro, head of the INS office in Baltimore, would not discuss specific details of the Tuesday raid. But he said the INS doesn't target Hispanic workers during raids.

"We don't single out people by their appearance when we visit any place," he said yesterday.

Hispanic workers who could not instantly produce their documentation had their hands tied together with black plastic wire by agents, said Flores and other workers interviewed by The Sun.

Inez Alvarez, 22, who is four months pregnant, said she was handcuffed for three hours. When she asked to go to the bathroom, agents said no, she said. Alvarez, who is Mexican, has lived in the United States since she was 8 and has applied for citizenship.

"It was like a movie -- it was something I never thought I'd see in person," she said. Her documents, which were in order, were in her pickup truck 200 yards away from where she was held, she said. But she was not allowed to get them for three hours, she said.

"I was walking out to go to lunch with my husband," Alvarez said as she clipped plants yesterday. Working on each side of her were her mother and mother-in-law, all of whom had legal papers. "The INS asked us, 'Are you married?' And we said, "Yeah.' He said, "In this country?' And we said, 'Yes. Do you want to see our rings?'"

Flores, Alvarez and others interviewed indicated strong loyalty to Kohl and Angelica. Flores has worked there for three years; her husband was a migrant employee before that, she said. Alvarez has lived in the housing Kohl provides to immigrants since she was 13. After graduating from Kent County High School, she attended an area vocational-technical school before coming to work at the nursery four years ago.

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