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Memo Curbs Arrests of Immigrants

After a backlash, the Border Patrol won't nab suspects except at the border or checkpoints. Now agents are angry.

August 13, 2003|H.G. Reza and Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writers

After protests over recent immigration arrests in San Diego and San Juan Capistrano, Border Patrol officials have instructed agents not to make arrests on city streets or question suspected illegal immigrants except along the border and at highway checkpoints in Orange and Riverside counties.

The directive, outlined in an Aug. 8 memo, is aimed at agents in San Diego and southern areas of Orange and Riverside counties.

"The future of Border Patrol operations" depends on eliminating the public perception that agents occasionally conduct neighborhood sweeps, says the memo from William T. Veal, chief patrol agent for the greater San Diego area.

Agents reacted with anger and disbelief to the memo.

"I refuse not to do my job. They want us to turn a blind eye even if we know that an alien is here illegally, and a criminal [besides]. That's reprehensible," said agent Thane Gallagher, who is also a union official. "Whose mythical notion is this that once an illegal alien is in the U.S., we're supposed to turn our back?"

The policy was announced by Veal last week, after the Aug. 1 arrests of five members of a Mexican family by Border Patrol agents. The family -- parents, son, daughter and a nephew, all adults -- was walking to the Mexican Consulate near downtown San Diego to apply for matricula consular cards, identification cards issued by the Mexican government to its citizens living in the United States. The arrests were made about a block from the consulate.

Later in the day, a friend of the family was arrested and deported when he went to retrieve the family's car, consular officials said.

The arrests sparked controversy and words of protest by Deputy Consul General Javier Diaz, who met with Veal to discuss the incident. Officials at the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613, which represents local agents, said Veal's directive was largely motivated by the outpouring of criticism leveled at the agency after the arrests. The incident was the first time in recent memory that such an arrest has occurred so close to a Mexican consulate in the United States, according to U.S. and Mexican authorities.

Mexican Consul General Rodulfo Figueroa said he was astonished by the arrests because of their proximity to his downtown office, where Mexican nationals have long been able to come without worrying about Border Patrol agents approaching them and where consular officials have been able to effectively do their job helping Mexicans in the U.S.

"There is sort of a unwritten agreement that it shouldn't happen," Figueroa said. "I don't know what brought them here."

Veal's memo was also shaped by fallout from a series of June arrests in San Juan Capistrano. In one instance, a father whose children were in grade school was arrested, forcing officials to place the children in a county facility.

The San Juan Capistrano arrests, and the wave of rumors and fears they fed, resulted in a meeting that attracted more than 400 people who met with the Mexican consul, lawyers and a U.S. immigration official in a church gymnasium.

Veal declined Tuesday to discuss the memo. A Border Patrol spokesman said the document is viewed as internal communication.

The memo was directed at all agents in the San Diego sector, which includes San Diego County and the border checkpoints in San Clemente and Temecula. It said agents are prohibited from initiating enforcement action in cities, residential areas, near workplaces and locations where day laborers gather. Agents are also prohibited from taking enforcement action while driving to assignments.

The priority for Border Patrol agents, Veal wrote, should be "maximum containment" of illegal immigration at the border and preventing the entry of terrorists. Enforcing immigration laws away from the border and at workplaces will be done by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he wrote.

Agents said the memo has had a chilling effect.

"Morale was already bad, but this memo sent it plummeting to the lowest point I've ever seen," said Shawn Moran, a spokesman for the union representing agents. "The guys and women are asking what management expects them to do, if not their jobs. We're telling them they have to follow the chief's orders."

Patricia Mariscal, a San Juan Capistrano activist who organized protests against the June arrests, welcomed the memo's message.

"This will allow the Border Patrol to continue with its mission of enforcing the immigration laws while at the same time treating immigrants with respect," said Mariscal. "But they've had other policies and regulations in place that they haven't followed in the past. I hope this is one they'll follow."

In San Diego, fallout from the arrest of the family near the Mexican Consulate has continued to cause unease.

While Moran defended the four agents who made the arrests, others said the Border Patrol had violated a long-held trust that the neighborhood around the consulate was sacred ground.

Mexican immigrant Angela Velasquez, 56, waited on a recent afternoon with her daughter, who was trying to get a Mexican passport. Velasquez said the area around the consulate should be a "protected zone," where undocumented immigrants don't have to worry about being arrested.

The American Friends Service Committee in San Diego has received several phone calls from apprehensive illegal immigrants since the arrest, said director Christian Ramirez.

"This has really sent shock waves throughout the Latino community," Ramirez said. "People have called to ask if it's safe to go to the Laundromat, supermarket, school, swimming lessons."

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