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ICE raids leave immigrants living in fear
"We're terrified"

February 2, 2007 | Page 12

NICOLE COLSON reports on a new wave of federal immigration raids around the U.S.

"WE'RE TERRIFIED. The police could come for us at any time and deport us."

Rosa Maria Salazar has good reason to be worried. The 55-year-old cook is an undocumented immigrant living in the heart of a Los Angeles community targeted in a wave of raids last month by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

For seven days in late January, the ICE carried out coordinated sweeps in several cities as part of its ongoing "Operation Return to Sender."

In Los Angeles, where the largest raids took place, the ICE swept through five jails, rounding up 423 so-called "criminal aliens" for deportation. Immigration agents also swept through nearby Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and Orange Counties, detaining another 338 undocumented immigrants as part of the largest raid in California history. Another 119 people were arrested in Northern California's Contra Costa County, and at least 24 people were rounded up in Baltimore.

Since it began in late May, "Operation Return to Sender" has led to the arrest of more than 13,100 immigrants across the country.

While the ICE claims it is targeting "criminals," for scores of those arrested, their only criminal charge was ignoring a deportation order. Many others had no criminal charges against them at all, but may have been undocumented and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when agents swooped in.

One Associated Press reporter who traveled with ICE agents during a raid recounted how they entered a house looking for a convicted rapist. Finding seven men, and unable to identify the person they were looking for, the agents took six into custody. As it turned out, the person they were looking for no longer lived in the house.

"We hadn't seen anything like this here before, and it came as a shock," Antonio Bernabe, a community worker who runs a day labor program at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, told Reuters. "The police didn't just take people with deportation orders, they took anybody--guys who were just hanging out in the street and even from a Jack in the Box restaurant."

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THE RAIDS have put entire communities on edge, leaving many immigrants frightened to leave their homes for work or school, or even just to go to the store. As immigrant rights activist Fernando Ramirez told Socialist Worker, "Unlike...larger workplace arrests, this past campaign by ICE looked more like the disappearances in Latin America."

Many were taken from their houses and apartments after agents burst in early in the morning. Others were picked up while trying to find work. In Pomona, Calif., some workers were rounded up outside of the Pomona Day Labor Center.

In Baltimore, two dozen people were arrested as they congregated in a 7-11 parking lot, a well-known gathering site for day laborers. ICE agents claim that they "did not intend to raid the area" and were only "looking for dangerous criminals," but in a clear case of racial profiling, white and Black workers also at the scene weren't questioned.

In one of the most outrageous recent instances, at least 21 workers at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C., were arrested.

The raids at Smithfield--the country's largest and most profitable pork processing plant--are seen by many as company "payback" for a two-day walkout in November by an estimated 1,000 workers, sparked when the company entered a voluntary federal program and fired more than 70 employees whose Social Security records reportedly did not match federal data.

At the time, the company was forced to back off its threats, reinstating those workers and promising in the future to give workers 60 days to provide verifiable documentation when a discrepancy arose.

Smithfield management admits it had advance warning that ICE agents were coming to the plant in January--though it claims it did not know it was a "raid." But according to the union-run Smithfield Justice Campaign, the raid came just one day after the company reportedly announced it will fire up to 600 workers in the coming weeks--primarily those who walked out in protest last November over the firings of fellow employees.

"Most of the leaders of a walkout in November are on their list," Leila McDowell, a spokeswoman for the United Food and Commercial Workers, told the Washington Post. "Whether the ICE is consciously in collusion or not, Smithfield could very easily manipulate the process and can use it as a tool to intimidate and threaten workers, which it has done in the past and been found to have done so illegally."

"The entire community has been terrorized," Gene Bruskin, head of the Smithfield Justice Campaign, told the Fayetteville Observer. "Parents are being torn from their young children who don't know where they are. Many of these workers have given their lifeblood to this company for [years], and now are being summarily handed over to be arrested and discarded."

Smithfield bosses, however, are more worried about their profits than these employees. While many families wondered how to contact loved ones who had been transported to a detention center 700 miles away, company spokesperson Dennis Pittman said his chief concern was how to speed up production on the line, given that hundreds of workers stayed away from work for fear of further raids.

"It's been a rough day," Pittman told the Fayettville Observer a day after the raid. "All we were trying to do today is get the product out the door." Pittman went on to say that any workers who stayed away more than three days would be summarily fired.

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RAIDS LIKE the most recent one at Smithfield are likely to become increasingly common.

As the Bush administration touts "comprehensive immigration reform," according to the Washington Post, it has quietly been sending administration officials across the country to convince employers to voluntarily hand over their workers' documents to be checked against federal Social Security information. In exchange for voluntary compliance, companies that rely heavily on immigrant labor will be spared large-scale raids.

As Smithfield's Dennis Pittman admitted to the Post, the agreement with the ICE was "a business decision." "We knew raids could be a possibility," he said. "We felt going this way, there would be less of an effect."

"Less of an effect" on profits, maybe--but not on the workers who were rounded up and deported, nor on the workers left behind who wonder if they'll be next.

That is why immigrant rights activists across the country are beginning to organize opposition to such raids. Following the round-up at the Pomona Day Labor Center, for example, immigrant rights activists and day laborers held a march and picket.

In Baltimore, CASA De Maryland, a Latino advocacy group, held an emergency press conference in the same 7-11 parking lot where immigrant workers were arrested. Members of labor, religious and immigrant rights groups attended, and the following day, a small protest took place at the site, initiated by the International Socialist Organization and Charm City Greens.

In Contra Costa County, the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition held an emergency meeting to discuss legal strategies to assist those in detention, a hotline for people to call, and a "know your rights" education campaign, with information on how to act if stopped by the ICE. A "rapid response" network is being formed so that when similar raids take place in the future, large numbers of people can be called out at a moment's notice for protests and direct action.

Organizing a fight against these attacks is a necessity. It's time to send a message that no human being is illegal.

Victor Fernandez, Abraham Gutiérrez, Jessica Hobbs and Kimberly Snowden contributed to this report.

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