Immigration Sweeps Mean Disrupted Lives, Silent Streets

Across Southern California, in Ontario, Corona and Escondido, cities with Latino majorities, the streets are practically deserted. Storeowners complain of low sales. Residents avoid being seen in public, afraid that the U.S. Border Patrol will detain them and take them away.

Mothers call newspapers or immigrant organizations to ask, "Should we take our kids to school today?" and "Is there no danger?"

Outside on the streets, patrols roam: It's the immigration police, who detain people to find out if they are in the country legally. If they're not, residents are taken to detention centers to be processed for deportation to Mexico.

Suddenly, the script of the recent "mockumentary" film, "A Day Without a Mexican," seems to have become reality, but without the comedy. Right now in California there are sick people who don't dare go to clinics, business owners who fret about a 60 percent drop in sales, women who call their acquaintances asking if it's safe to go shopping.

In short, millions of people -- both longtime residents and recent immigrants -- are beset by the fear of being expelled.

"Those who didn't regularize their immigration status," says Raúl Villarreal, spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, "should have known that one day they would be found." Besides, he adds, "enforcing the law" is nothing new; similar immigration enforcement activities have been conducted in Texas and the Southwest.

At the headquarters of immigrant rights organizations, telephones don't stop ringing. Many of the calls come from terrorized residents: "I'm calling to report a sweep at the Chino swap meet," says one caller. "Police are collaborating with La Migra (immigration agents)."

At times the person who calls is an English-speaker who won't accept being spoken to in Spanish. "I'm calling to protest against the illegals, because it's time that they go back," one says. Some are more threatening, conflating their hatred of undocumented immigrants with the organization itself: "Leave, we'll burn your building down."

Such is life in a season of immigration sweeps in Southern California. The authorities hate the word "sweeps" because it connotes random checks. They insist that the raids are part of a search for coyotes (human traffickers) through operations based on specific information obtained from local and state police and "people in the community."

Around 500 undocumented immigrants have been detained since the beginning of June, when a mobile unit of 12 agents from the U.S. Border Patrol Station in Temecula, Calif. began to operate. The unit's jurisdiction is 3,000 square miles. The large radius of action means the unit can act autonomously, without having to respond to orders from superiors.

U.S. Border Patrol spokespeople insist that there is no new policy behind the sweeps, and that there is no reason for alarm.

So, why is the Latino community so alarmed? Why was there such a clamor that even the Mexican President Vicente Fox had to complain about "the abuses" during a trip to Chicago? Why did up to 10,000 people march in protest -- many joining the marches spontaneously -- in Ontario, Pomona, Pasadena and other cities?

The fears are not unfounded; they are based on what people are experiencing. The population of undocumented immigrants in the state is of course much larger than the 500 people detained. Some even put the number as high as 7 million. In the United States as a whole there are 3 million children who are U.S. citizens but whose parents are undocumented.

Some undocumented immigrants have lived here 10, 15, 20 years but have not legalized their status due to apprehension, apathy, a stubborn conservatism, ignorance or poverty. Because of the comfort of their daily routines -- they pay taxes, have jobs, families, refrigerators filled with food -- the undocumented tend to gradually achieve a feeling of safety.

The recent raids have punctured that thin film of security, horrifying millions of people and making them feel hunted.

Fear is the source of rumors that the detentions have expanded to Norwalk, Long Beach, Pasadena, San Fernando, San Bernardino, Santa Ana, Huntington Park, Santa Barbara -- cities where the Border Patrol denies carrying out operations.

The rumors increase the sensation of disquiet and vulnerability, feed on themselves, multiply and worsen the climate of intimidation. There's an overriding feeling that in this country, immigrants, even the well-established ones, are not safe.

Immigration raids far from the border were common in Southern California until 1994, when the emphasis shifted to military-style surveillance directly along highly trafficked border areas. Aggressive interior enforcement decreased, and when it did recur, mass protests often embarrassed the Border Patrol and other agencies into retreat.

The recent operations -- call them sweeps or patrols -- could continue, as government spokespeople have promised they will. They could expand to other areas if, as some people suspect, the recent detentions were a kind of pilot plan.

If they do continue, the sweeps could destroy the security of millions of people all over the country, generate more controversy and animosity and become an election-year issue.

A decade ago, anti-immigrant ballot initiatives sparked the emergence of a social protest movement in solidarity with immigrants. If the raids continue, there may be another resurgence of comparable pro-immigrant political activism.

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