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Inland Latinos Alarmed by New Border Patrol Sweeps

June 10, 2004|Janet Wilson and Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writers

U.S. Border Patrol agents have arrested more than 150 suspected illegal immigrants during a major sweep in Riverside and San Bernardino counties that has caused panic in some heavily Latino neighborhoods.

The sweeps, which began Friday, came after a change in policy at the Border Patrol and will continue indefinitely, agency officials said. Similar "interior checkpoints" and related activities have occurred in parts of Texas and elsewhere in the Southwest, said Mario Villarreal, a spokesman with the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection in Washington.

In August, Border Patrol officials rescinded a 4-year-old policy prohibiting agents from pursuing or arresting suspected illegal immigrants except near the border and at highway checkpoints. The recent sweeps in Ontario and Corona, two cities far from the border, are the first such action in Southern California since the policy shift.

"U.S. Customs and Border Protection is committed to preserving the integrity of our nation's border, and interior checkpoints are a critical enforcement tool to our priority mission," Villarreal said.

"This is kind of new I guess for most folks, but it is within the mission of the Border Patrol to detain, arrest and apprehend illegal aliens," said Angel Santa Ana of the Border Patrol's San Diego office.

Federal agents said they were relying on intelligence to identify places with suspected illegal immigrants, stopping people as they stepped off buses and walked along the streets.

Agents are questioning and arresting people based on their nationality only, said Tomas Jimenez, senior patrol agent in San Diego. He declined to elaborate, but said these types of operations are usually based on information from local residents or law-enforcement officials.

"All of our operations are based on intelligence. We did not just decide one morning to go to this place for no reason," Jimenez said. "And basically all the decisions we make when arresting a person are based on nationality only."

Jimenez insisted the arrests "are not raids" and said that churches, schools and homes would not be targeted. More than 90% of the people arrested were Mexican, and a few others were from El Salvador or other Latin American countries, Jimenez said.

Police in both Ontario and Corona said they had been informed that Border Patrol agents would be within their jurisdictions, but that they were not part of the sweeps.

The arrests are causing anger and panic among some Latino residents and activists. Abel Medina, director of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional in Ontario, accused Border Patrol agents of racial profiling, which he said is improper and discriminatory.

"It's one thing to arrest people, it's another thing when they are targeting by race," Medina said. "This is harassment and totally aggressive. And who are they stopping? They're stopping Latino people, people with brown skin, that's who."

The phone at the Ontario office of the nonprofit agency, which assists immigrants, is ringing incessantly, he said, with reports from people who have endured stops and questioning, and from concerned business owners. One woman, who gave her first name as Elidia, said Wednesday that her husband, Lucas Lagunas, 20, and his brothers were arrested a few blocks from their Ontario apartment Friday as they were driving to work at a nearby warehouse and deported to Mexico. Lagunas' 19-year-old wife said she is three months pregnant and has been in the country about five months. She has no family here and is relying on friends for support.

"Right now I'm just sad and scared," she said in a near-whisper. "I'm just here waiting, hoping that my husband comes back."

Although she said she was too scared to leave the small apartment she shares with three friends and four of their children, she said she promised her husband that she'd raise the money to bring him back across the border. The family wanted to work here and buy a house, she said. On Friday, about eight Border Patrol cars pulled up in front of their apartment complex. Residents yelled "La Migra!" warning that immigration agents were in the area, said apartment manager Rosa Covarrubias.

"Some people thought it was a joke," she said. "But when they saw the patrol cars, people started running. One woman hid in her closet."

Some Ontario residents were warning others to avoid intersections where Border Patrol agents had stopped immigrants. Trips to the market, work or even school were considered risky, Covarrubias and others said.

"They're holed up, they don't want to be outside, because the Border Patrol is everywhere," said Covarrubias, who said five tenants were arrested Friday on the street just outside the complex. "They're just upset because they come here to work and be progressive, and look what happens to them. Why aren't they out arresting the gangsters and drug dealers?"

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