By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008
Marie Justeen Mancha was at home alone when she heard strange voices inside the house. As she crept down a hallway to make sure she wasn't hearing things, the voices erupted into shouts.
" 'Police! Illegals!' "
Testifying in a House subcommittee hearing, Mancha recalled the words she said the immigration agents shouted during the September 2006 raid on her home. She was 15 at the time, a Mexican American, born in Texas but living in Reidsville, Ga.
"I walked around the corner from the hallway and saw a tall man reach toward his gun and look straight at me," Mancha, now 17, said in a thick Southern accent. "My heart just dropped."
As the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement compiles a record number of arrests through household and work-site raids seeking illegal immigrants, a growing number of U.S. citizens such as Mancha say they have gotten caught in the net.
The agency, known as ICE, a division of the Homeland Security Department, recently reported that its arrests in the current fiscal year have surpassed last year's record total of about 4,900. The number of arrests has soared since 2005, when a Government Accountability Office report concluded that work-site enforcement was not a priority for ICE.
An ICE spokesman did not respond directly to a question about complaints that U.S. citizens and legal residents are getting swept up in the raids. "We target egregious employers, those who have built their business model on hiring an illegal workforce," spokesman Brandon Alvarez-Montgomery said in a statement this week. "This practice undercuts legal, law-abiding companies and can create an environment where employee welfare and labor standards are not enforced."
But there have been significant missteps. More than 100 citizens and legal residents were snared along with nearly 140 illegal immigrants in a raid on a software company in Van Nuys, Calif., early this year. Five citizens in Texas joined a lawsuit against the department, asserting that they were subjected to unreasonable search and seizure when agents raided a meatpacking plant where they worked last year. An African American worker said in a hearing that he was handcuffed and detained for hours without food and water during a raid on an Iowa meatpacking plant in 2006.
Immigration officials and anti-illegal-immigrant advocacy groups say the raids have proved effective, forcing Mexican nationals and others to think twice before sneaking across the border, and have instilled fear in illegal immigrants already here.
Critics say the raids and arrests have also led members of Congress to launch investigations and to a mounting number of lawsuits.
On its Web site, the American Immigration Law Foundation has summarized at least 10 lawsuits stemming from the raids, including the case of 7-year-old Kebin Reyes, a U.S. citizen who was held for hours when agents raided his home in the San Francisco Bay area and held his father, Noe, on suspicion of entering the country illegally. In June, the government agreed to a $30,000 settlement, according to the foundation.
Critics also point out that detention facilities used to hold suspected illegal immigrants and legal immigrants convicted of crimes are overflowing. The number of immigrant inmates has surpassed 40,000, and officials are struggling to find money to detain them and pay for medical expenses. The American Civil Liberties Union and news reports by The Washington Post and others have tracked cases of detainee illnesses that have gone untreated and cases in which inmates may have died for lack of treatment.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who chairs the immigration subcommittee before which Mancha testified, said aggressive enforcement and arrests will not work without changes in the law to allow illegal immigrants to work legally and get on a path to citizenship.
"At this record rate of arrests, it would still take 2,943 years to deport the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants," said Lofgren. During a recent raid at a kosher meatpacking plant in Pottsville, Iowa, she noted, ICE put those it had detained in a cattle barn. "That's where the majesty of the judicial system and the deportation process was dispensed, there in the cattle barn," Lofgren said.
Lofgren also cited the case of Pedro Guzman, a U.S. citizen who was turned over to ICE by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and removed to Tijuana.
In testimony about the case in February, attorney Rachel E. Rosenbloom of the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College, said Guzman, 29, had a significant cognitive disability and could not read or write, but the police agencies accepted his signature on a document consenting to be transferred.
"The . . . removal of Mr. Guzman is not an isolated incident," Rosenbloom said.
Mancha said she feared that she might be deported until she convinced the agents in her home that she was a citizen. "They asked me if my mom was a Mexican and if she had her papers or a green card. I answered all their questions, telling them my mama didn't need a green card, that she was born in Florida."
At the same hearing in February, Mike Graves, a U.S. citizen who has worked at a Swift meatpacking plant in Marshalltown, Iowa, for 21 years, testified that he was swept up in a 2006 raid "that felt like an attack."
Meatpackers at Swift plants in Cactus, Tex., joined a class-action lawsuit filed last year by the United Food and Commercial Workers against the DHS and ICE that seeks to prevent agents from conducting mass raids. Several plaintiffs said they were subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures.