Fear grips day-laborers

A day after federal raid on a lot in city, fewer gather for work

January 25, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,sun reporter

As certain as the morning chill, the men in work boots, jeans and wool caps flock to the parking lot of the 7-Eleven at Broadway and Lombard Street at the first sign of daylight, eager for work.

But a day after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers descended on the parking lot in unmarked sport utility vehicles and arrested 24 men suspected of being illegal immigrants, everything was different.

The typical throng of nearly 100 mostly Latino immigrants who gather near the parking lot was reduced to about 40. And the contractors who once boldly pulled up their empty pickups and vans to solicit workers arrived in a modest trickle.

"Everyone is scared," said one of the would-be laborers, a man with a graying beard and a wool hat embroidered with the letters "USA." He said he is originally from El Salvador, but he refused to give his name, fearing immigration officials would track him down. "I'm here because I have no choice. I have to work. I have to take care of my family."

Contractors communicated with workers subtly - at times, solely through eye contact. At one point, a pickup entered the parking lot, stayed for a short time, then left only to stop around the corner, away from the busy intersection, to collect a few workers.

The fear extended well beyond the corner yesterday, as Latino community advocates - who denounced the Tuesday arrests - said they noticed fewer people asking for their services and an unusual silence along the Broadway corridor, known as the heart of the area's burgeoning Hispanic community.

While rumors of immigration raids abound in the immigrant community, the mass arrests were unprecedented in Baltimore, advocates said.

Lourdes Montes-Greenan, Latino services manager at East Harbor Community Development Corp., said rumors alone can paralyze the community with fear. She said she remembers a family who hired a van to transport their children to school, rather than walk the streets, after hearing rumors of raids.

"When things like this happen, the rumors just increase," she said. "You are going to hear more stories, and people are going to be more paranoid."

Montes-Greenan offers free tax-preparation services in Spanish, and her organization has made a huge push to reach out to immigrants - legal and illegal - urging them to file income taxes. She fears the arrests will keep well-intentioned taxpayers at home. Earlier this week, the office was packed; yesterday, she had two clients.

"There is this misconception that undocumented immigrants don't pay taxes, that they come here to steal our jobs," she said. "But these people are really concerned, and they think about how to be responsible and compliant with the system as much as they can."

Jeanne Velez, director of Assisi House at St. Patrick's Church, which works in Baltimore's Hispanic community, has helped the Baltimore Police Department build trust with the area's immigrant Latinos, encouraging the community's help in solving crimes. She fears that the hesitation of some immigrants to report crimes will only increase in the wake of the arrests.

"It's like all the work we have been doing to try to build bridges with the local authorities and immigrants never happened," she said.

Advocates and Mayor Sheila Dixon have said the arrests draw attention to the pressing need for comprehensive immigration reform. Last year, the city approved $75,000 to help fund an indoor labor center, where workers can receive training and be connected to employers. Immigrant supporters at CASA of Maryland, the state's largest Latino advocacy group, are in the process of finding a location.

CASA employees spent yesterday tracking down family members of the men who were arrested and linking them with attorneys. Eliza Leighton, an attorney with CASA, said the group is considering its legal options after the arrests, which it insists were an example of ethnic profiling.

Advocates said that when officers arrived at the convenience store parking lot, they asked for documents only from men who "looked Hispanic." In addition to men on the parking lot, the agents asked for documents from passers-by on a nearby sidewalk, said Leighton.

Steve Johnson, 41, said he was also at the corner Tuesday but was not asked for documents.

"Seemed like they came out here with the sole purpose of arresting Mexicans," said Johnson. "You got white guys and black guys here, but they didn't say anything to us."

Authorities maintain that the men were not targeted and the arrests were not planned. Instead, officers were searching for one illegal immigrant who had been ordered out of the country by a judge but failed to comply, said Marc Raimondi, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman. When agents pulled into the convenience store parking lot, about two dozen men approached, asking in Spanish if those in the car had work for them, he said.

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