46 held in immigration sweep

Federal, Anne Arundel authorities raid painting company

July 01, 2008|By Justin Fenton and Kelly Brewington | Justin Fenton and Kelly Brewington,Sun Reporters

Federal and Anne Arundel County authorities detained 46 suspected illegal immigrants yesterday after raiding an Annapolis painting company and more than a dozen homes where its owner allegedly housed workers, a sweep that local officials touted as a "strong deterrent" for employers but which immigrant advocates say has devastated a community.

Acting on a tip, more than 120 officers, including 75 federal agents and 50 Anne Arundel police officers, participated in simultaneous early-morning raids on Annapolis Painting Services Inc. and 15 area homes, which police say were rented to employees by the company's owner.

Agents also seized five bank accounts, 11 vehicles and the homes as part of a criminal investigation into hiring and harboring illegal immigrants. The company's owners were not arrested, but authorities said the investigation was continuing.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the July 1 Maryland section about an immigration raid on an Annapolis painting company incorrectly reported the date of a congressional measure that criminalized the hiring of illegal immigrants. The reform took effect in 1986.

"By employing illegal immigrants, that is the magnet for people to come to this country," said Scot R. Rittenberg, assistant special agent in charge for the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in Baltimore. "They will work for below minimum wage, they will work in poor conditions, and they will subject themselves to standards that are below what a lawfully-present person will subject them to. So one of our approaches is to get rid of that magnet."

Immigrant advocates denounced the arrests and said they plan to rally with concerned citizens and civil rights organizations in front of the Baltimore ICE office today, calling for an end to workplace raids.

"What we understand from our preliminary interviews with family members is that some parents have been taken in front of children and workers with legal status were detained," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland. "We believe this is a very clear discrimination just because of the color of our skin, because we are Latino, and we believe that is unacceptable."

Annapolis Painting Services owner Robert Bontempo Jr., 46, could not be reached for comment. According to the company web site, he started painting homes in the 1970s as a way to pay for college and transformed the business into one of the largest painting contractors in the region. Its projects have included work at the State House, the Naval Academy, and several high-profile area businesses.

Yesterday's arrests reflect a surge in ICE enforcement efforts in recent years. As of May, ICE had arrested about 2,900 people on immigration violations in the fiscal year that began in October. That figure includes 850 arrests in its crack down on employers and workers. More than $30 million in criminal fines, restitution, seizures and civil judgments have been levied in connection with such raids.

Before the Department of Homeland Security was established in 2003, such criminal charges were virtually unheard of, even though congressional immigration reform in 1968 had criminalized the hiring of illegal immigrants. In 2002, for instance, ICE arrested 485 people on immigration violations and just 25 on criminal charges.

In the Baltimore region, stepped up enforcement has alerted employers and sent fear through immigrant communities. High-profile sweeps have included the arrest last March of 69 employees of a staffing company providing workers to sportswear maker Under Armour Inc. and other local businesses, as well as the arrest of 24 men last January at a popular Southeast Baltimore gathering spot for day labors.

Although agents said the arrests were not a part of a targeted enforcement strategy, they sent shock waves through Baltimore's burgeoning Latino immigrant population.

Yesterday's arrests netted 36 men and 10 women, from such countries as El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nigeria and Panama. The workers will be transferred to ICE detention facilities while they await removal proceedings, Rittenberg said.

In addition, five women were processed for removal, but not taken into custody, because they were the sole caregiver for their family, including one woman who is pregnant, Rittenberg said. The agency will mail these workers information notifying them of court dates, where a judge will determine whether they have a legal right to remain in the country.

Immigrant advocates have been critical of the agency's enforcement strategies after several high-profile raids several years ago separated parents from their children and detained pregnant women.

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold held a news conference across the street from the Housley Avenue business yesterday morning, saying that companies that hire illegal immigrants receive an unfair advantage that would not be tolerated in the county.

"Illegal means illegal in Anne Arundel County," Leopold said yesterday.

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