Raids throw shadow over immigration reform rally

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 22, 2010; C01

In the VIP section behind the big stage with a majestic view of the U.S. Capitol, Esvin Blanco, Oved Vigil and Edwin Mazariegos showed the ankle bracelets they must wear beneath their baggy jeans so U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can keep track of them before they face possible deportation in coming weeks.

Onstage a few yards away, Carlos Luna wore an American flag as a cape in support of his brother, Mauricio, caught in the same series of raids 11 days ago. And Cesar Guanoquiza took the microphone to make his public speaking debut, in honor of a nephew, a brother and a cousin who were detained.

"We are not criminals," Guanoquiza declared. "We are workers here to push this country forward!"

Last week, the detainees had been behind bars in Maryland on suspicion of immigrating illegally to this country. But on Sunday afternoon during the March for America, they were hailed by cheering thousands on the Mall as the human face of the need for immigration reform.

There is, of course, another view.

"I understand why they use people like this as props," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, as word spread before the march that newly released detainees would be featured in the program.

"We've made immigration policy for too long on these wrenching anecdotes," said Krikorian, who favors tighter restrictions on immigration.

Victim, criminal, hard-working breadwinner -- the illegal immigrant is the ambiguous symbol at the heart of the debate. And raids, in which immigration agents burst into workplaces and arrest suspected illegal immigrants, are the point at which the debate ceases to be abstract. Lines are drawn, sympathy must take sides.

The recent raids at two popular Maryland restaurants and other locations have created human and economic ripple effects that have washed over immigrant and American families from the Washington region to Central and South America. The implications even reached the Obama administration, where officials scrambled to explain the timing of the actions taking place on the home turf of pro-immigration activists, who were in the midst of planning the march.

One of the themes they had settled upon: "Stop the raids."

The three immigrants wearing ankle bracelets couldn't stay for the whole march. The bracelets' batteries were running low. If they didn't recharge them, immigration agents would be after them again.

The first time had been enough.

Trouble at the door

Gustavo Torres's cellphone was stacking up with urgent text messages, but he couldn't check them because he was in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, meeting President Obama.

It was just after midday, Thursday, March 11, and it seemed like an auspicious moment for Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland, and a dozen other immigrant-rights leaders granted the 75-minute presidential audience. The president reaffirmed his commitment to reforming the broken immigration system. And the advocates looked forward to flexing the movement's grass-roots muscles during the upcoming march on the Mall.

Torres's job in the meeting was to raise the subject of workplace raids, which he believes sweep up people whose only crime was crossing the border in search of work. The Obama administration has significantly reduced the number of workplace raids, but most immigrants removed through all enforcement measures continue to be non-criminals.

Focus on people who've committed crimes, Torres urged the president, according to participants. Obama replied that he must enforce existing law, but he directed Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to meet with the leaders to discuss ways to lessen the impact on hardworking immigrants.

Torres left the White House feeling optimistic. Then he checked his phone. His top organizer had sent a text message.

"Dealing with raid," the organizer said. "YOU NEED TO CALL ME NOW."

Just a couple of hours earlier, about 10:45 a.m., a kitchen worker at Timbuktu Restaurant in Hanover was going to a refrigerator to get some potatoes when he saw agents coming in a rear door. He ran into the main part of the kitchen. "Immigration!" he warned his co-workers.

Police vans, unmarked SUVs and squad cars had wheeled into the driveways and parking lots of two restaurants, an office and several residences in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. Dozens of ICE agents and local police surrounded the properties and secured the exits.

Immigration, they said on entering, according to witnesses. Don't move. Stay calm. Nothing's going to happen. We're only going to identify each person.

(Immigration enforcement officials declined to discuss details of the raids because the investigation is ongoing.)

There was no escape. One desperate immigrant dived into a large walk-in refrigerator and slid under a shelf holding cases of beer. He muted his cellphone and watched as heavy black shoes paced up and down the chilly chamber.

The agents asked the workers if they had proof of legal residency. They bound suspected illegal immigrants with white plastic handcuffs behind their backs.

At the raided locations, 28 men and one woman from Guatemala, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Bangladesh were detained. So far, none has been charged with a crime. All are suspected of "administrative" violations of immigration law. All but six were released by Friday. The six are those who have prior immigration violations. The fates of the others will be decided by immigration officials in coming weeks.

The questioning went on for hours. Where are you from? When did you arrive? Where did you enter?

Timbuktu busboy Walter Rosas Alvarez, 34, answered: He came from Guayaquil, Ecuador, about five years ago. He is single with no children and was helping support his parents back in his homeland. He had never been in trouble with the police or immigration officials in either country and had been paying taxes with an IRS tax ID number.

Later, Rosas Alvarez would say that he dreamed of staying in the United States and had been counting on immigration reform making that possible. He had been saving his money and buying sophisticated woodworking tools to continue the skilled carpentry work he once did in Ecuador. Now he expects to be deported. "For five years, all I did was work," he said. "I came suffering, and I leave suffering."

A similar scene unfolded at By the Docks restaurant in Middle River, just outside Baltimore. Agents searched the restaurants' offices for paperwork and took computer hard drives, according to witnesses.

In the redbrick rambler next door to Timbuktu, where about nine of the immigrant workers lived, Jose Martinez, 35, a cook from Cuenca, Ecuador, heard agents shouting commands to open the door. But before Martinez could answer, a battering ram crashed through the door and three agents entered the living room, guns pointed at him, Martinez recalled later.

Three other workers, including Josue Perez, 21, were also in the house. Perez, a busboy, explained later that he was working to support his elderly parents and three younger brothers who are deaf and unable to speak.

The agents cuffed the men and questioned them. They searched the rooms, pulling out belongings and throwing things on the floor, Martinez said. Later, the agents marched the workers to vans and drove them to the detention centers in Howard and Carroll counties.

After seven hours in the refrigerator at Timbuktu, the hidden immigrant stuck his head out from under the beer shelf. He felt frozen. He couldn't walk. Two acquaintances carried him close to the kitchen oven, to warm him.

He had escaped the raid. But now what?

Trying to lie low

About the same time Torres was heading into the White House, and 29 handcuffed immigrants were answering questions, Valerie Yahlouskaya was driving on Eastern Boulevard in Middle River.

Yahlouskaya passed By the Docks, where her husband worked in the kitchen. She thought it was strange that police cars were blocking the entrance and exit to the parking lot. She saw a waitress crying on the restaurant porch.

Yahlouskaya tried to call her husband. No answer. She called the restaurant. No answer. Then she got a call, and a waitress, between sobs, talked low and fast before abruptly hanging up: The cops came and they took all the guys. . . . A cop is coming, I have to go!

"I was in shock," Yahlouskaya said, recalling events later. "It was surreal. I got scared."

She spoke on the condition that her husband's name and his home country in Central America not be disclosed. (Immigration officials declined to identify any of the suspects.)

Yahlouskaya and her husband, both 30, met in 2003 and married in 2004. They have three children, American citizens, ages 2, 3 and 5.

Her husband worked in the restaurant kitchen six days a week, up to 12 hours a day. They had been getting ready to buy a house, Yahlouskaya said. "We kept waiting to see -- maybe they'll pass the [immigration reform] law," she said. "We got a new president. . . . It was just lay low and see if something changes."

Now her husband faces possible deportation.

"No way, I don't want to think about it," Yahlouskaya says. Neither she nor the children speak Spanish, she said, and she's not sure she could relocate to Central America.

But if she didn't, "he won't see his kids, they won't see their father."

The ripple effects of the raid know no borders.

In the little town of Quebrada de Arena, Honduras, Esperanza Pineda learned that her husband had been detained. He had been sending home $900 a month, the sole support for his wife and four children, ages 14 and younger.

Maria Perez's cellphone rang in Langley Park. It was her uncle, who works construction in Maryland: Had she heard from her brother Josue? Josue was picked up in the raid on the group house.

"I thought it was a bad joke," said Maria Perez, 20, a waitress.

She would have to tell their parents in Central America. (A lawyer advised her not to disclose the country.)

Josue had come to the United States five years ago, Maria three years ago. Together they sent home $150 a month to help support their parents and disabled brothers -- about a quarter of the family's monthly budget, according to their mother, Elvida Esperanza Oliva Cardona.

"He went away, risking and suffering to support his brothers," Oliva Cardona said in a telephone interview, bursting into tears. "He is our right hand."

Now with Josue's future uncertain, "it's up to me to stay, more than ever," Maria Perez said. "It's a big responsibility."

Two tough choices

Skeptics of immigration reform support the raids and dispute attempts to paint the alleged illegal immigrants and their families as victims.

"You need to have raids and arrests, not just of employers, but of illegal workers, in order to make clear you can't get away with this," Krikorian said.

"These are clearly heart-wrenching stories, there's no question about it," he continued. But "you can't just say, 'Here's a guy who has got kids living on a dirt floor in Guatemala, therefore we should just let him violate the whole system of public laws.' . . . It doesn't address the harm that low-skilled immigration does to the American workers, who are competing against immigrant workers."

Other supporters of tougher immigration controls argue that illegal immigrants are a strain on school budgets and the health-care system, which are not fully compensated by the taxes many of the workers pay.

Torres activated CASA's raid-response system. Lawyers and volunteers for the immigrant advocacy group began contacting family members and making arrangements to visit the detainees and advise them of their rights.

Torres charged that the timing looked like an attempt to "intimidate" the marchers.

Meanwhile, administration officials used back channels to try to convince advocates that the timing was coincidental. They characterized these raids as fitting the administration's policy of targeting alleged criminal violators, including employers.

"It was part of an ongoing criminal investigation into worker exploitation," said a federal law enforcement official who declined to be identified in order to discuss the case.

No charges have been filed against the owners of the restaurants and houses.

A Maryland institution, Timbuktu was co-founded three decades ago by Michael Stavlas. Now George Anagnostou, a relative of Stavlas's, is a principal owner of both Timbuktu and By the Docks. Stavlas is an owner of the group house.

Timbuktu and By the Docks are large operations, proud of their crab cakes, employing as many as 250 people.

Anagnostou and Stavlas declined to comment on the raids or the investigations. Several of the immigrant workers and their family members spoke fondly of Anagnostou.

"He was always good with the guys," Yahlouskaya said. "He gave raises, paid overtime. . . . He took taxes out of their paychecks."

What now?

He was wearing a green rugby shirt and standing outside a discount appliance store in suburban Baltimore: The immigrant who got away.

After warming himself by the stove the day of the raid, he made it to a friend's house. At 41 years old, he has devoted nearly half of his life to working in the United States, mostly at Timbuktu.

"The truth is, I feel as though I became a part of this country," he said, blinking back tears. "The only thing I don't have is legal papers. My dream is to have a house, form a business and move ahead. I paid taxes because I wanted to have everything be clean.

"Now all that's finished."

He knows it was a violation for him to arrive and stay without authorization. But he considers himself honorable. For all the raid's destiny-altering consequences, for him it was above all a humiliation.

"Because we are not criminals," he said.

After Sunday's march, he planned to find another state to live in. Start all over, still in the shadows.

Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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