Immigration Sweep Brings Fear to Community

The Associated Press
Sunday, June 18, 2006; 5:28 PM

SAN DIEGO -- Fewer parents are walking their children to school in this border city's Linda Vista neighborhood. The crowd of day laborers huddled in a parking lot outside McDonald's has dropped by half.

A sense of unease has spread in this community of weather-worn homes since immigration agents began walking the streets as part of a stepped-up nationwide effort targeting an estimated 590,000 immigrant fugitives. Other illegal immigrants are being rounded up along the way.

Juana Osorio, an illegal immigrant from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, said her neighbors have largely stayed indoors since agents visited her apartment complex June 2.

"People rarely leave their houses now to go shopping," Osorio, 37, said as she clutched a bottle of laundry detergent in a barren courtyard. "They walk in fear."

Her husband, Juan Rivera, 29, has stopped taking their two children to the park on weekends. "We want to go out but we can't," said Rivera, a construction worker.

In a blitz that began May 26 and ended Tuesday, federal agents arrested nearly 2,200 illegal immigrants, including about 400 in the San Diego area _ more than any other city.

It was the latest salvo in a crackdown on illegal immigration that has included arrests of nearly 1,200 workers at a supplier of wooden cargo pallets and the deployment of National Guard troops on the Mexican border. Meantime, Congress is considering a broad overhaul of immigration laws.

All this has immigrants on edge, even in places such as San Diego that are home to thousands of illegals, many of whom have lived openly for years.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said about half the 2,179 people arrested in the 19-day nationwide raids _ dubbed Operation Return to Sender _ had criminal records, including convictions for sexual assault of a minor, assault with a deadly weapon and kidnapping.

While criminals were targeted, agents also asked neighbors and curious onlookers about their immigration status and, if they were in the country illegally, they got hauled away for deportation, too.

"We can't just turn our heads away from people we find along the way," said Lauren Mack, an ICE spokeswoman in San Diego.

Agents staked out homes to determine when best to come knocking, interviewed apartment managers and checked credit reports and loan applications.

Since last fall, the agency has increased its fugitive task forces nationwide from 18 to 38, and plans to expand to 52 teams by the end of the year. The Bush administration has proposed a total of 70 teams.

San Diego's Linda Vista is a hardscrabble neighborhood of two-story homes favored by Mexican, Filipino and Vietnamese immigrants. As in other cities, the fugitive task force arrived in unmarked vehicles and agents were dressed like civilians. Mack said agents wore something to identify them as law enforcement, perhaps an agency insignia on a shirt or a bulletproof vest marked POLICE.

Day laborer Fredy Calleja said his uncle was arrested about two weeks ago while watering plants outside his home. An agent asked him about someone suspected of selling drugs in the area. When the uncle said he didn't know the drug dealer, the agent asked if he was in the country illegally and arrested him when he said he was.

Calleja said his uncle was deported but then sneaked across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. He was back in San Diego a little more than a week later.

Since the blitz began, Serafina Morales has been looking for unmarked white or black vehicles whenever she leaves the house.

"We're all scared to go to school," she said. "Many of us are letting our children walk alone."

© 2006 The Associated Press