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Saturday, June 19, 2004

Immigration sweeps stir cheers, protests North County Times - North San Diego and Southwest Riverside County News

Immigration sweeps stir cheers, protests North County Times - North San Diego and Southwest Riverside County News

"This is something that we've traditionally done," he said. McPartland said the areas are not targeted based on ethnicity, but on specific "intelligence" provided by law enforcement and citizens. He declined to elaborate.

Since the operations began two weeks ago, the 12-officer squad has nabbed over 400 illegal immigrants. Most of them ---- about 250 ---- were caught in Escondido, McPartland said. Most were Latinos, he said.

Immigrant rights advocates said the strategy offers clear evidence of racial profiling.

"From all accounts, it seems that the Border Patrol has given its agents in San Diego a license to stop and interrogate anyone who 'looks Mexican' ---- a description that easily fits more than a third of the people in this county," wrote David Valladolid, a local Latino leader in a letter dated June 17 addressed to Commissioner Robert Bonner, who heads the Border Patrol.

The letter, written on behalf of several of the county's most prominent Latino organizations, called on the Border Patrol chief to "immediately reassess the rash of so-called 'interior enforcement activities.' "

But not everyone wants the Border Patrol to ease up. Advocates for stricter immigration enforcement cheered the sweeps.

"I couldn't be happier," said Ben Seeley, executive director of the Border Solution Task Force, a group that favors stricter immigration enforcement. "Their job is to deport people who are in the country illegally. I hope they are not going to back off."

Officials for the Border Patrol said the officers are not arresting people based on race. McPartland said the arrests are based on "consensual conversations" with individuals.

The officers approach people to speak with them based on "demeanor, clothing, where they are, time of the day and aspects of human behavior that can raise suspicions," he said.

In Escondido, where many of the immigration arrests have taken place, a group of day laborers chuckled at the notion of "consensual conversations" with immigration officers.

Ramiro Solorio Alvarado said he was riding his bicycle home June 10, when he was stopped by agents driving a Border Patrol van. He said he admitted being in the country illegally and was deported to Tijuana.

A few days later, he walked back across the border illegally through the mountains east of Tijuana. He was in Escondido looking for work last week at the Interfaith Community Services day-labor center on Quince Street on Thursday morning.

"We just want to work," he said.

Across the street from Interfaith is the Escondido swap meet, where many other arrests have occurred, the workers said. El Tigre Foods, a popular grocery store catering to Latinos, has been another target, workers there said.

Shoppers at the grocery store Friday said they have noticed fewer people there. Some customers said they have no choice but to risk being caught in order to buy food and other necessities.

"We just have to trust in God," said Monica, who declined to give her last name, while leaving the store with her friend Luisa. Both women purchased groceries and bouquets of flowers to celebrate their children's graduation from grade school Friday.

Local activists say some people are afraid to leave their homes.

"I had a client come in and tell me that her sister asked her to buy milk for her because she was scared to leave the apartment," said Magdalena Gonzalez, who owns an immigration service business on East Valley Parkway.

Gonzalez said she and others in the community are organizing a grass-roots effort to try to address the immigration arrests.

Other advocates are beginning to organize community meetings.

"These are not criminals, these are people going to work, to shop," said Jose Gonzalez, a coordinator for Frente Indigena Oaxaqueno Binacional, a group of Oaxacans that works to protect Mexico's indigenous communities on both sides of the border.

"They are raiding places like El Tigre. That's not where they are going to find any criminals," he complained.

Gonzalez' group is looking to organize a community meeting with representatives of the American Friends Service Committee's office in San Diego.

Gonzalez said he would also be traveling to Tijuana to provide assistance, such as food and shelter, to several Oaxacans who had been deported from Rancho Bernardo recently.

Many of the advocates have questioned the legality of the way the raids have been conducted. They charge that the Border Patrol has targeted people solely on Latino appearance.

"The raids being conducted in San Diego are growing rasher by the day," said Claudia Smith, an immigration attorney with the Oceanside office of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. She is director of the foundation's Border Project.

The sweeps "have become virtual dragnets," she said.

Drivers who are approached by immigration officials must pull over if asked to do so. Agents may ask questions about immigration status, nationality and travel plans. People in the car have the right to remain silent when questioned.

Contact staff writer Edward Sifuentes at (760) 740-5426 or esifuentes@nctimes.com.

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