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Sweep Rumors Raise Worries for Immigrants

April 29, 2006|Anna Gorman and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

With planned rallies and a boycott for immigrant rights just days away, rumors are spreading throughout California that la migra is conducting sweeps at bus stops, schools and work sites.

The reports of random arrests by immigration agents have caused fear among many illegal immigrants and prompted them to stay close to home. Some said they believe authorities are trying to discourage participation on Monday.

"They are using intimidation to scare us," said Jose Hernandez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico City who said in Spanish that he was determined to participate in Monday's boycott and march.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice disputed the rumors, saying, "We don't do random sweeps."

But Kice said the agency is responsible for enforcing immigration laws and agents make arrests every day. Generally, the arrests follow leads and intelligence about specific immigration violations, she said. Frequently those arrested are criminals, "absconders" and people believed to pose a risk to national security.

Kice would not say whether agents would be present at Monday's rallies.

The rumors come in the wake of the arrests last week of 1,187 undocumented workers in 26 states in a workplace-enforcement case that targeted IFCO Systems North America, which manufactures wooden pallets. Two California facilities -- one in Bakersfield and one in San Bernardino -- were among the sites where arrests took place, following a yearlong investigation, authorities said.

Also, the Department of Homeland Security announced last week that it planned to expand immigration enforcement, which includes tracking down criminal immigrants, fugitives and visa violators.

Advocacy groups said they have received many calls about the rumored raids. On Thursday, only 10 of 60 parents showed up for classes at North Valley Caring Services, which offers parenting and English classes to immigrants, said Executive Director Leonora Barron.

"It's panic," she said. "They don't want to go to the laundromat. They don't want to go to the market. They don't want to do anything."

The American Civil Liberties Union also received reports of raids and was investigating to see if they were true, said lawyer Ranjana Natarajan. "We hope that this doesn't mean that the government is trying to intimidate people out of exercising their free speech rights," she said.

The American Immigration Lawyers Assn. e-mailed its members saying that there had been reports of sweeps in communities around the country.

"While these reports are consistent with DHS's announced intent to beef up enforcement of immigration laws within the U.S., ... it appears that many of the stories may be only rumors," the e-mail said.

Several immigrants in Los Angeles said Friday that they had heard about agents rounding up illegal immigrants but had not witnessed any arrests.

As Claudia Mendoza, 30, and her two children left a fast-food restaurant in the Pico-Union area, she said talk of raids had made her even more worried about being deported.

"I am with the kids," Mendoza, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, said in Spanish. "How am I going to feel if they arrest me?"

Despite the rumors, a large crowd of day laborers gathered near the Home Depot in the Pico-Union neighborhood to wait for work. Marlon Ochoa, 25, said he has to keep coming to the center so he can earn money to support his wife and two children.

He said he believes undercover immigration agents will be at the marches in Los Angeles on Monday but still plans to participate.

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