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Reports Spark Fear in Neighborhoods

Latino residents avoid stores, schools to avoid rumored roundups of illegal immigrants.

June 12, 2004|Stephanie Chavez and Jean Paul Renaud | Times Staff Writers

In the wake of U.S. Border Patrol arrests in the Inland Empire, heavily Latino neighborhoods and shopping districts in Pasadena, Huntington Park, Pomona and elsewhere were muted Friday as many fearful residents changed their routines to avoid rumored illegal-immigrant sweeps.

Reports circulated throughout those neighborhoods Friday that federal agents were arresting people outside supermarkets and restaurants, bringing some businesses to a near standstill. One Pasadena elementary school with a majority Latino student population reported 30% absenteeism. The city's official day-laborer hiring site was deserted.

In Huntington Park, diners shunned restaurants and shoppers avoided markets along Pacific Avenue, one of the city's major thoroughfares.

Store managers in Bell Gardens and South Gate said customers were calling to ask if it was safe.

"They're nervous. Everyone is afraid," said Rene Morales, a security guard at Ranch Market in South Gate.

"There's fear all over Los Angeles."

Those fears are unfounded, according to the U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Authorities adamantly denied that their agents were out arresting suspected illegal immigrants in any of those cities this week.

"No, no, no. We've had no actions in any of those areas," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, successor to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Rumors have been feeding into wholesale hysteria for two days. We are not making any wholesale arrests."

She said she has been "flooded with calls" from the Mexican Consulate and some panicked Southern California residents as far north as Santa Barbara. Kice said ICE officers typically arrest suspected illegal immigrants after warrants are obtained, or if someone is suspected of criminal activity or has a court deportation order.

"We wouldn't routinely go to commercial places and ask people to see their papers," she said. "I'm very frustrated because people don't believe us."

Mario Villarreal, a spokesman from the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, said Border Patrol arrests had been confined to Ontario, Corona and Escondido, where more than 200 suspected illegal immigrants have been arrested since June 4.

A team of Temecula-based agents, called the Mobile Patrol Group, worked in uniform and marked vehicles, basing their arrests on "consensual conversations," not racial profiling, officials said.

Frank Clark, director of the Pasadena Ecumenical Council, sent out an e-mail Thursday asking for information because "the INS has spent most of the day in Pasadena."

When cashiers, waitresses and security guards in Pasadena and Huntington Park were questioned by a reporter, they said they had heard about arrests but had not witnessed any.

"I heard that two days ago they [authorities] took people away on a bus. I don't think it's true," said Neda Atashpanjeh at Farm Fresh Ranch Market in Pasadena.

"It's just one big rumor. I don't know who started it. The customers have been asking us if it's true or not."

A 25-year-old Pasadena City College student said Friday that he was approached outside the Ranch Market Wednesday afternoon by a man in a white shirt with identification tags around his neck.

"He asked me if I had papers," said the student, who requested that his name not be used because many of his family members are illegal immigrants.

The student, who is in the United States from Mexico on a student visa, said he became nervous because he had heard the rumors around town. He told the man that his papers were at home.

The man drove him to his house two blocks away, the student said, and when presented with the documents, he politely apologized and left.

Both Kice and Villarreal said no such enforcement action had occurred in Pasadena.

In Montclair on Friday, waitress Lourdes Rangel, 39, said men in a white van with a green stripe and another white sedan used traffic cones to set up a checkpoint at Mission Boulevard and Romona Avenue, an industrial area of the city.

She said the sedan had a black seal on it, but she couldn't make out what it said. Two or three of the men signaled vehicles to pull over, she said. A man in green pants and a white polo shirt with no identification stopped her and asked, "Can I see your papers?"

"I wasn't afraid, because I'm an American citizen," Rangel said. She showed her driver's license and was waved on, she said.

Montclair Police Sgt. Chris Hammond, whose shift began at 9 a.m. Friday, said he knew of no such traffic stops. Kice and Villarreal stressed that their agents had taken no such actions. "I have no idea who that would be," Kice said.

Residents should not show documents or give personal information to an officer unless proper identification is shown, Kice said. She asked that people report any suspicious activity.

As evening fell in Pasadena on Friday, more than 50 community leaders met at the Pasadena Community Job Center on Lake Avenue to discuss the rumors.

"This is something that the immigrant community always fears," said Councilman Victor Gordo, whose district serves a large Latino population in central Pasadena.

"Unfortunately, any perception it's happening causes unrest and instability. It affects families and their children."

A celebration for an Aztec dance troupe Friday night at Villa Park in Pasadena was canceled. "People don't want to take a chance," Gordo said.


Times staff writers David Pierson and Sandra Murillo contributed to this report.

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