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Immigration Arrests Not Policy Shift

Officials defend the Temecula border agents' use of roving patrols, a tactic that has fallen out of favor in Southern California.

June 11, 2004|Janet Wilson, H.G. Reza and Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writers

The arrests of more than 200 suspected illegal immigrants in inland Southern California do not appear to be part of a realignment of the national immigration enforcement strategy, immigration officials said Thursday. Instead, they seem to be a shift in tactics by one U.S. Border Patrol station in Temecula, about an hour north of the Mexican border.

The patrols are being done by a newly trained team of 12 agents called the Mobile Patrol Group, which is based out of the Temecula station in Riverside County.

The team works in uniform and in marked vehicles, said agent Gloria Chavez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection in Washington.

Border Patrol officials said Thursday that the deportations were routine business and that all arrests were based on "consensual conversations" between agents and passersby, not racial profiling.

Residents in those communities and activists countered that the arrests were clearly discriminatory against Latinos.

Angel Santa Ana, a spokesman with the San Diego sector of the Border Patrol, which oversees the agents that made the arrests, said Corona and Ontario were not part of their usual area of coverage, but that officers were entitled to strike up conversations with anyone anywhere in the U.S.

Chavez also insisted that the enforcement actions by the Temecula-based agents in cities away from the border were not sweeps. Sweeps suggest that agents are stopping people at random, she said.

Roving patrols fell out of favor in Southern California in recent years when immigrant communities protested arrests by Border Patrol agents in public places.

Last year, Border Patrol agents all but withdrew from San Juan Capistrano when Latinos staged demonstrations and held community meetings to protest arrests outside apartments, at bus stops and around the downtown train station.

The top federal official overseeing all Border Patrol sectors ordered the head of the San Diego office to rescind an order banning internal stops and arrests last August.

Roving patrols have been commonplace for years elsewhere throughout the Southwest, particularly in Texas.

"We do that kind of stuff all the time," said Jaime Macias, field operations supervisor for the Border Patrol station in Freer, Texas, which is 60 miles from the Mexican border.

Most police departments in Southern California have a policy of not actively getting involved when Border Patrol agents are making arrests, because they do not want to discourage illegal immigrants from reporting crimes.

Both Corona and Ontario police have said they had nothing to do with the arrests in the last week.

More than 150 suspected illegal Mexican immigrants, one Salvadoran and one Guatemalan citizen were arrested in Corona and Ontario last Friday and Saturday.

They were arrested as they stepped off buses or walked or drove along streets in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Agents said they had arrested an additional 59 people in Escondido on Wednesday, based on consensual conversations.

"A consensual encounter would be something like, 'Good afternoon, ma'am, how are you doing?' That is the sort of encounter we're talking about. Any two people then have a right to engage in a conversation," said Richard Kite, a spokesman with the Border Patrol's San Diego sector.

"If the other person says, 'I'm sorry, sir, I'm a little busy, I don't want to talk,' that's pretty much the end of it right there," Kite said.

He said if an agent, based on conversation, suspected someone was an illegal immigrant, he could then ask for identification. Attorneys, activists and witnesses said there was nothing voluntary about the stops and arrests.

"I don't think that's what ever happens," said attorney Carrye Washington of Ontario, who has represented hundreds of illegal immigrants.

"In reality, that person is told, 'If you don't talk to me, you'll never see your family again.' The first thing they do is stop them. They walk up to them and ask them, 'Where are you from and let me see your documents.' "

Washington said that if the arrests were based on consensual conversation, "we need to get the word out to the community that they do not need to answer questions, and see what happens."

Activists said the operations targeted one ethnic group.

"This is an attack against all Latinos," said Jose Calderon, a professor at Cal Poly Pomona. "They are only stopping people with brown skin. This is clearly a form of racial profiling."

Kite denied that the stops and arrest were based on race and said numerous factors, including accent and dress, contributed to probable cause and arrests.

Witnesses to the arrests described chaotic scenes outside supermarkets and along busy intersections, where street vendors and shoppers were questioned and detained. At least two people described seeing young children separated from their parents

"People were desperate," said Maria Maldonado, an Ontario resident who said she witnessed arrests outside Cardenas Market in that city last Friday.

Two vans and one truck pulled up outside the market on Holt Boulevard, and uniformed agents hopped out and began questioning and arresting people in the parking lot, she said.

"The women who had children were crying out for their kids. People didn't know what to do."

Javier Palos, 29, an illegal immigrant house painter from Ontario, said he ducked in his car seat about half a block away during the same arrests.

"They put the children in patrol cars," he said. "They don't even give them a chance to take their children home. They're Border Patrol. What are they doing here?"


Times staff writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

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