Immigration raid

Latino community angered by 24 arrests in city

January 24, 2007|By Kelly Brewington and Matthew Dolan | Kelly Brewington and Matthew Dolan,Sun reporters

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested 24 men suspected of being illegal immigrants yesterday at a popular Southeast Baltimore gathering spot for day laborers.

The arrests quickly sent shock waves through the city's immigrant Latino community, prompting advocates to hold a news conference hours later denouncing the action.

But officers who made the arrests at the 7-Eleven parking lot on the corner of Broadway and Lombard Street did not intend to raid the area, according to ICE officials.

They were actually searching for an illegal immigrant who had been ordered out of the country by a judge but failed to comply, said ICE spokesman Marc Raimondi. They never found the man, whom authorities declined to identify.

About 10 agents in three or four unmarked vehicles stopped at the 7-Eleven around 11 a.m., according Raimondi. As soon as the agents pulled their vehicles into the lot, about two dozen men approached, asking in Spanish if those in the car had work for them.

The agents, who were wearing raid jackets and badges on their chests, asked the men for identification and found cause to believe they were illegal immigrants, Raimondi said.

Of the 24 suspected illegal immigrants detained by authorities, Raimondi said, six men had criminal records, three had final judges' orders of removal from the county, and eight men previously had been physically removed from the country, including one who had been caught at the border six times.

"It's important to note that our agents target fugitives. However, in the course of doing business, they don't ignore other illegal aliens, especially ones that come up and introduce themselves," the spokesman said.

While ICE officials said they had reason to believe the men were in the country illegally, advocates in Baltimore's burgeoning Latino immigrant community expressed outrage, saying the officers' tactics were akin to racial profiling. About 30 advocates, service providers and clergy members gathered at the same 7-Eleven parking lot yesterday afternoon for a news conference.

"They got out and started asking for papers of anybody who looks like me," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland, a Silver Spring-based immigrant advocacy group with an office in Baltimore. "We believe they were specifically targeting the Latino community. It's outrageous."

Irene Muniz, an employee at the CASA's Baltimore office, said she received a phone call from a man who told her he was being detained by immigration officials who asked for documentation from people who "looked Hispanic."

Torres said CASA would provide attorneys for the men who were detained and that he wants to schedule a meeting with local immigration officials to plead for a moratorium on such arrests.

Immigrant supporters said the arrests illustrate an urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform that allows undocumented immigrants the opportunity to live and work in the U.S. legally.

Congress has wrestled with the question of what to do about the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. In his State of the Union remarks last night, President Bush called on Congress to pass comprehensive reform that would step up enforcement, make it easier for employers to verify the status of potential hires and create a guest worker program.

The Baltimore arrests come on the heels of last month's arrest of 1,297 illegal workers at Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in six states - the largest ever raid by federal officials.

In June, ICE began a program nicknamed Return to Sender, which has resulted in more than 13,000 arrests nationwide. Although the Baltimore team was involved in a Return to Sender operation this week, the 24 arrested yesterday were not on its target list.

Deborah Meyers, a senior analyst with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, said while immigration officials are stepping up workplace enforcement, they are not penalizing employers.

"If ICE went into this parking lot and arrested these individuals, they easily could have arrested the people in the trucks trying to hire them," she said.

"The problem is, for the government to shut down all these kinds of informal hiring sites is just not feasible," she said. "If people can get work, they will get work in some way. They will find a new meeting place."

In Baltimore, the city approved spending $75,000 last year for a center where workers can legally connect with employers and receive training. CASA is in the process of finding a location.

In the meantime, advocates fear the arrests will have a chilling effect on the community, with people being afraid to report crimes or even go about their daily tasks.

Jeanne Velez, director of Assisi House - at St. Patrick's Church - which works in Baltimore's Hispanic community, said she learned of the arrests when a man came to her office in tears, saying he feared his brother was among the men arrested.

The man, who would only give his first name, Noel, said his brother has looked for work at the 7-Eleven parking lot for a week. "I think something bad happened," said Noel, who came to the U.S. from Honduras four years ago. "I just want to find out where he is. I'm scared."

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