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Immigrants advised about their rights

In the face of stepped-up sweeps, groups offer tips on avoiding deportation as they push for reforms.

March 04, 2007|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Following recent arrests at job sites and homes in Southern California and across the nation, local advocates are waging their own campaign to educate immigrants about their rights.

A network of legal aid and nonprofit groups is handing out information packets, holding town hall meetings and producing a DVD to prepare illegal immigrants for future sweeps.

"Our immigration system is out of whack with reality," said Judith Golub, executive director of the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center, which passes out bilingual informational fliers at community meetings. "All these raids are a symptom of a broken system."

The outreach is part of a broader effort by organizations such as the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, American Immigration Lawyers Assn. and other organizations seeking reforms. Some community groups are advising immigrants that if they are stopped by agents, they shouldn't sign or say anything.

"Silence is golden," Central American Resource Center legal director Daniel Sharp told a small gathering of immigrants recently at the Los Angeles office. "Many times, [agents] arrive looking for someone and they take away more people. Why? Because the people get scared and they run, or they get scared and they open their mouths."

Roberto Martinez, who attended the meeting, said he was in boxer shorts when immigration agents banged on his neighbor's door at 6 a.m. one day last fall.

An illegal immigrant from El Salvador, Martinez feared that agents would knock on his door next. He considered running, but worried that the dogs would bark and tip off the agents. So he hid in his apartment and prayed that the agents would leave.

"Oh my God!" Martinez, 28, remembers saying to his roommate. "Que hacemos?" -- What do we do?"

The agents arrested his neighbor and drove away without knocking on his door, Martinez said, but he is scared they will return.

Sharp told the immigrants that federal agents frequently ask two questions: Where were you born? And how did you get to this country? Undocumented immigrants must be careful not to answer those questions, he said, because they may be putting themselves at risk of being deported. And they should be careful about what they sign, he added, because they may be agreeing to leave the country voluntarily.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has assigned four teams of agents to the Los Angeles area in recent months to search for criminals, fugitives and visa violators.

They also are stepping up work site enforcement, targeting undocumented workers and their employers.

During one week in January, agents arrested more than 300 illegal immigrants -- many of whom had committed crimes or had already been ordered deported -- in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties as part of an effort called Operation Return to Sender.

Last month, agents raided eateries nationwide such as the House of Blues and the Hard Rock Cafe, filing criminal charges against three officials of a janitorial contractor and arresting nearly 200 illegal immigrants, including 50 in Southern California.

Officials target specific immigration violators, but may take others into custody if they cannot prove the immigrants are here legally, said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the federal agency.

"If they cannot produce any document or identification, we are going to err on the side of caution," Kice said.

However, she said, nobody is going to be deported without due process.

Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said that comprehensive immigration reform, not more raids, is the long-term solution.

"This is the administration's way to show they're doing something about illegal immigration," Salas said. "It's a public relations campaign."

The coalition is producing a short DVD about immigrants' rights to be distributed to them and their advocates nationwide. The DVD is expected to be finished by the end of the month, spokesman Alvaro Huerta said.

The recent sweeps have created confusion, fear and panic in immigrant communities, advocates said.

The Central American Resource Center receives 10 to 20 calls each day from people whose friends or relatives have been detained, executive director Angela Sanbrano said.

"People are afraid to go to the store," Sanbrano said. "They are afraid to go to church. They are even afraid to send their kids to school."

Sanbrano advises her clients to have a plan in case they are arrested and cannot pick up their children from school.

Every time there is word about a raid, Ana Portillo, 38, gets nervous about dropping off her three children at school in the morning. Though they are U.S. citizens, Portillo said, she is undocumented.

"But we have to go on," said Portillo, who lives in Pomona. "And I know if immigration agents arrest me, I have rights."

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