Sunday, June 13, 2004

When the feds come knocking

When the feds come knocking

When the feds come knocking
Sunday, June 13, 2004
Staff Writer
His name is Ruben. The 32-year-old father of four grew up in Guatemala but lives in Trenton now. His hope is to someday live the American dream.

He believes in hard work, wants to put his children through school, buy a nice house, maybe even get a dog.

But those dreams came to a dramatic halt in late April when he was detained by federal agents during an immigration raid in South Trenton.

The agents, enforcing a deportation order, were looking for a man who previously lived in Ruben's rented home. But even though Ruben was not the man they were seeking, he was unable to provide the authorities with proper documentation and was arrested.

Ruben, who asked that his last name not be disclosed for fear of retribution, is hopeful he will be allowed to stay in the United States.

He is free on bail while awaiting his fate. He admits he came to the United States illegally 12 years ago, but after living in a Central American political climate where guerrillas ruled and people simply "disappeared," he said he had little choice. Crossing the border was the only way to ensure a better life.

"I hope to God I don't have to leave," said Ruben in his native Spanish. "If I was single, I would go, but I have four children. They are used to living here. I can probably find work (in Guatemala), but I will not earn enough to feed my family. If I leave, how do I feed my children?"

Ruben's story is a familiar one within the undocumented Hispanic community. With federal raids apparently on the rise, many of those people are living in fear.

Some have moved out of their homes, kept their children out of school and avoided public places, fearful they may be next on the federal agents' list. Some even worry they may be detained at public bus stops and supermarkets.

-- -- --

Ruben was one of 11 Guatemalans arrested in the area in the April raid. Among the others was his brother, who Ruben said was pressured into waiving his right to an immigration hearing. He is back in Guatemala. His brother-in-law and a friend opted for voluntary departure and will be leaving soon.

Ruben will go before an immigration judge next month. He is hoping the judge will take into consideration his past attempts to obtain the proper documentation and that three of his four children are American citizens.

"We can't sleep," said Ruben, who works as a carpenter. "I look at my kids and think, `What type of future awaits them?' "

It's not clear whether the recent raids in the city were part of a larger operation by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Kerry Gill, spokesman for the Newark office of Immigration Enforcement, refused to comment for this story. But he previously said the operation in April was a "routine enforcement action."

While he said he could not be specific about why agents were in Trenton, he stressed it was a standard enforcement of United States immigration laws.

Juan Martinez, president of People for the Revitalization of the South Ward (PROS), said he's heard of numerous raids in the city but has only been able to confirm two - one on April 23 and another May 24. He also heard of another possible raid May 25 but is still gathering information about it.

In all, 31 people, all Guatemalan men, have been detained following the raids.

Martinez said PROS, the American Civil Liberties Union and Lutheran Social Ministries are collecting affidavits from those who have been detained. Martinez hopes to present their stories to Mayor Douglas Palmer, asking that he arrange a meeting between representatives of the specific groups and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services the in Newark.

While Martinez doesn't object to the federal agents doing their job, he is critical of the manner in which they are detaining people.

He claims agents are identifying themselves as police instead of immigration agents. While Trenton police often assist outside agencies, no one from the Trenton Police Department has been involved in any of the recent raids, according to Lt. Joseph Juniak, city police spokesman.

Martinez also claims some people have been handcuffed and lined up on the street before they are asked for their identification.

Martinez said agents had no order of deportation for one of the men picked up in April but that he was arrested after they ran his name though the system and found he might be wanted in California and Colorado. Martinez said the man was cleared after fingerprints revealed he was not the person wanted in those states. Still, he was turned over to CIS.

"If they are looking for people with warrants, fine, but don't come and destroy our community," said Martinez. "This is about people's rights, this is not a police state."-- -- --

Harry Luna, president of the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Mercer County, also objects to the handling of those being detained.

"The way they are going about it, there is no respect for women or children," said Luna.

Martinez said many people who have been detained have been "squeezed" by federal agents to sign waivers giving up their right to go before a judge. He said many also were told their only choice was to make bail or leave the country.

"We've lost a whole bunch that way," he said.

Parastou Hassouri, an immigration rights specialist for the ACLU, said that while people may find the tactics used by federal agents problematic and even unethical, they are legal. She said immigration laws give immigration agents great latitude to make warrantless arrests.

Martinez said the recent sweeps also have presented a problem for local police, who for years have been trying to establish a relationship with the undocumented alien community.

Hassouri said the sweeps probably will drive the community further underground, making it unlikely they will come forward if they are victims of a crime or have information about a crime. The effect will damage and weaken relations between the community and police, Hassouri said.

City Detective Ivan Mendez, the Latino Law Enforcement Society president, said it took his organization several years to establish trust with the undocumented community.

As an example, Mendez said, there has been a rash of robberies recently in the East and South wards, with a majority of the victims of Central and South American descent. Mendez said the undocumented Hispanics are like "walking ATMs" because they tend to carry all their money with them.

If they are afraid to report such robberies because they are fearful their names will be turned over to the CIS, the problem will only worsen, the detective said.-- -- --

Some also are questioning why with so many different immigrant groups in the city - from as far away as Europe, Africa, and Asia - the only ones detained in recent raids are from Central America.

"Immigrants of European descent, they are not being targeted at all," said Luna. "But us, unfortunately, we are walking targets."

Hassouri said after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the government prioritized its focus on people of Middle Eastern descent. But now the federal government seems to have expanded its efforts to include other nationalities.

After the attacks there was a feeling that immigration was one of the weak links in the American system, "that it was what enabled 9/11 to happen," she said.

"By undertaking initiatives, they are reassuring the public that they are keeping the country safe. (But) there is a very vocal anti-immigrant element that was able to exploit the 9/11 tragedy to further their own agenda, an agenda they had even before 9/11," Hassouri said.

"I think it's ironic that at the same time President Bush announced the need to make immigration reform, there is this heavy-handed enforcement that is creating the very condition that the president said needs to be addressed," Hassouri said.

Since the raids began, several neighborhood meetings have been held in schools and churches to inform undocumented residents about their rights. The recurring message was, "Don't say or sign anything."-- -- --

One woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said her husband was arrested three weeks ago on an order of deportation.

The woman also is here illegally, but the officers did not ask her for identification. She was, however, told she might want to move because the agents could return, so she is staying with her sister.

She said her husband came to the States in the late 1980s. She joined him six years ago. They have a 3-year-old daughter who is an American citizen. Asked why they never tried to attain legal status, she said, "Stupid that we are, we come here with the idea of making money and then going back to our country, but then we make life for ourselves here."

Her frustration quickly turned to anger as she recalled the day immigration officers came pounding at her door.

"We take the lowest-paying jobs, we are mistreated, humiliated and we are treated like criminals," she said.

That feeling became real for Ruben when he was about to be transported to a detention center in Elizabeth. An officer emptied a bag filled with shackles and chains on the holding cell floor. Soon all the detainees had been shackled together.

"This is when tears rolled down everybody's eyes," Ruben said. "It was such a sad scene. We were being treated like criminals."

In all his years in the United States, Ruben said he never really considered the possibility of deportation.

He said applying for a visa was not a viable option because he had no money in a Guatemalan bank, owned no property there and had no established business - all requirements when applying for a visa, he said.

His American employer tried to sponsor him, but the application was denied. He said they tried a second time but have yet to hear from CIS.

"I thought it would be different here," Ruben said. "I thought I came to a country where I would never have problems. I never thought that, especially for being undocumented, they would treat me this way."


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