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Sunday, June 27, 2004

Undocumented workers face increasing scrutiny: South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Undocumented workers face increasing scrutiny: South Florida Sun-Sentinel

By Patty Pensa
Staff Writer

June 27, 2004

If it weren't for the accident, the 11 farmworkers from West Palm Beach would be picking blueberries in New Jersey by now.

Instead, two lie in a funeral home waiting to be shipped to their native Guatemala. The surviving nine might have to follow, depending on what an immigration judge has to say.

In what immigrant advocates call a frightening departure from the norm, Florida Highway Patrol troopers called agents from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the bloody scene of the June 8 rollover on Interstate 95 in Martin County.

The move comes as cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials is reaching new levels. Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Florida became the first state to train select police officers to enforce immigration law. Alabama followed, and other states are considering the same.

Similar agreements could spring up across the nation if Congress passes the Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal Act. The legislation, with support from more than 100 members in Congress, would allow state and local officers to investigate and deport undocumented immigrants.

While intended to weed out terrorists, some say the bill would instead foster fear among immigrants and lead to racial profiling. Local immigrant activists say the same will happen here as word spreads of how troopers handled the recent rollover on I-95. They say accident victims will flee crash scenes and won't report crimes or cooperate with police on investigations.

"This sets back dramatically the efforts so many local police officers have made to try to overcome the fears in the alien community," said Greg Schell, managing attorney at the Lake Worth-based Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, which offers legal services to farmworkers.

"I'm hoping it's an isolated incident."

Immigration officials were brought in because the men, all Guatemalan except one Mexican, did not have Florida identification, said Lt. Tim Frith, highway patrol spokesman. The Mexican man had a consular ID, a form of identification Mexican consulates have encouraged its citizens to get since Sept. 11.

The men spoke only Spanish, which Frith said added to the "reasonable doubt" they were not U.S. citizens.

"If you're in law enforcement, that should raise a few eyebrows that you're dealing with illegal aliens," Frith said.

Law enforcement officials throughout South Florida say officers typically do not call immigration investigators unless dealing with a criminal suspect. But they said officers use their discretion: They would call immigration if they found false IDs or had trouble identifying victims.

Nelson Cruz, 18, said it's not fair. He committed no crime. He only was following the crops northward as thousands of migrants in search of a better life have done before him.

"All we can do is wait, nothing more," said Cruz, back in the West Palm Beach house he shares with at least five others, after a week in the hospital.

Immigration officials said the men have been sent court notices, but Cruz and others said they haven't received them.

"We don't know yet," said Serepio Perez, 19. "We're scared that perhaps we'll have to go to court."

Or jail, added Cruz.

In Lake Worth, a city with a large Mexican and Guatemalan immigrant population, police don't want to deter immigrants from reporting crime, said Lt. Ken White. Officers taking reports don't ask their immigration status, he said.

"We try not to make it a two-prong investigation," White said.

Police in Lake Worth and West Palm Beach have been meeting with the Guatemalan community to offer crime prevention tips and information on immigration, banking and insurance. The idea is to quell any fears of police, said Assistant Chief Guillermo Perez of the West Palm Beach Police Department. He is no relation to Serepio, one of the farmworkers in the accident.

West Palm Beach police do not do background checks on routine traffic stops. But in situations similar to the recent rollover, Perez said officers would check with immigration officials to identify the victims.

If a victim's immigration status were pertinent to the case, deputies with the Broward County Sheriff's Office would do the same, said spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright.

Aron Santizo Velazquez, 25, the driver of the Ford Aerostar headed for New Jersey earlier this month, died at the scene. Spanish-speaking officers interviewed the nine survivors to find out what happened and to determine their identities.

But Frith said it was difficult to get information from the men. Whether the men are deported is another matter.

"If that were the case, I'm sorry that would have to happen after all they've been through," Frith said.

Miami attorney John de Leon, who's been speaking with the men, said the highway patrol's decision to call immigration was misdirected.

"This in no way furthers the government's goals in preventing terrorism," said de Leon. "This in fact probably makes the situation worse."

It's not uncommon for immigration agents and local law enforcement to work together, said John Woods, assistant special agent with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Immigration agents aren't interested in targeting immigrants working in the United States unless they are criminals, Woods said. He disputed the idea immigrants will become afraid of police because of the recent rollover.

Angelina Castro, supervising attorney at the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center office in Fort Pierce, had another view.

"I can't in good conscience go out to these communities and say, `Don't be afraid of the police,' because I don't know," she said.

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