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INS Raids Raise Immigrant Advocates' Fears

February 05, 1996|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A series of recent U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service raids in Southern California have aroused fears that the INS may be embarking on a policy of seeking out and arresting illegal immigrants at Los Angeles-area work sites and street corners.

Among immigrant advocates, any increase in such enforcement activity tends to evoke unpleasant overtones of earlier, much-resented operations, such as "Operation Wetback," which resulted in the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens during the 1950s.

But Richard K. Rogers, INS district director in Los Angeles, denied Friday in an interview that federal authorities are planning any large-scale raids in area neighborhoods and workplaces.

"We are not focusing on any type of roundups," said Rogers, whose jurisdiction includes Los Angeles, Orange and five other counties that together are believed to be home to more than 1 million illegal immigrants.

The INS raids last week at sites on the Eastside and in the city of Industry--combined with ongoing enforcement operations in Santa Ana and a Clinton administration buildup along the U.S.-Mexico border, at Los Angeles International Airport and at other airports--have set off alarm bells among some activists closely monitoring immigration trends. The city of Industry operation even resulted in the arrests of clients at a county-run mobile clinic dedicated to disease prevention.

"We're not saying this is a big deal yet, but it is disturbing, because we haven't seen this kind of activity in a while," said Bobbi Murray of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

Rights advocates have maintained that a return to large-scale immigration raids--or "surveys" as the INS terms the operations--would be a devastating blow to immigrant families well-established in the community.

Southern California is home to the largest concentration of the 4 million unlawful residents nationwide, according to INS estimates. Many use false documents to find work in sewing shops, hotels, factories and elsewhere.

During the increasingly incendiary immigration debate, some groups seeking massive deportations of illegal immigrants have called for roundups in Los Angeles and in other immigrant hubs.

But INS Commissioner Doris Meissner has rejected that aggressive approach as time-consuming, ineffectual and needlessly disruptive.

Work site raids and corner enforcement operations were once standard INS procedures, and are still used in many areas. But the agency has shifted tactics in recent years, in part because of the negative publicity that often follows high-profile raids in factories, hotels and on residential streets.

Instead, the Clinton administration has bolstered enforcement along the border and heightened vigilance targeting employers who hire illegal immigrants.

On Monday, INS agents descended on two apparel factories on the Eastside, arresting 23 suspected illegal immigrants and drawing complaints from witnesses who told reporters that one agent pushed an escaping worker into razor-edged concertina wire--a charge denied by the INS.

And on Wednesday, INS agents hit a busy commercial parking lot--and a popular day-laborer gathering site--in Industry, detaining 13 more suspected illegal immigrants.

Some of those arrested were picked up while seeking disease-control services from a mobile county clinic that tests and provides counseling for sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, said Jonathan Freedman, deputy director of public health programs for the Department of Health Services. Some immigrants were having their blood drawn as the INS swooped in, one official said.

"We're caught in the cross-fire between immigration policy and a desire to protect the public health," Freedman said.

The INS called the clinic's proximity coincidental. "It's not our intention to disrupt any medical services, or do any work site congregation points on a regular basis," declared Rogers.

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