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THE NATION : DISPATCH FROM GRAHAM, N.C.

Immigration arrests roil small town

August 24, 2008|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

GRAHAM, N.C. — Marxavi Angel Martinez was a child of small-town North Carolina. She grew up here, in the rolling Piedmont region, and was a high school honor student and cheerleader before settling into a job at the Graham Public Library. At 23, she lived in a tidy white trailer at the Cedar Creek Mobile Home Park with her husband and 16-month-old son.

Her carefully tended life came crashing down in July when she was accused of using a phony Social Security number and lying on her job application.

Martinez's parents had brought her to the United States from Mexico on valid visas when she was 3 years old. But they never left the country, in violation of the law. That made Martinez an illegal immigrant, and so she was placed in federal detention, facing deportation.

Her arrest outraged many Graham residents and drew harsh criticism from immigration reform advocates. It also put a spotlight on the sheriff's office, which denied that it was waging a campaign to round up illegal workers.

At a contentious meeting of the Alamance County Board of Commissioners this month, Chairman Larry W. Sharpe asked Sheriff Terry Johnson whether he was "profiling" Latino residents.

Recent arrests of immigrants, Sharpe said, had "gotten out of control."

The sheriff responded: "If you want to come here illegally and live in this country, do not violate any laws."

An increased push in recent months to enforce the nation's immigration laws has snared those, like Martinez, who were raised in the United States -- as well as day laborers, repeat immigration offenders and other criminals.

Local law enforcement agencies also have been working with federal immigration agents under a program, known as 287(g), meant to focus on serious crimes, such as drug trafficking, gang activity and terrorism. The deputy who arrested Martinez at the library was assigned to such a task force.

A week after Martinez was jailed, the same deputy arrested her husband on the same charges at his job at a local Biscuitville restaurant. According to friends, Martinez's parents then turned themselves in to federal authorities. All are being processed for deportation.

Martinez's arrest followed a June 14 incident in which an Alamance County deputy arrested an undocumented Latino driver on Interstate 85. Local media reports said the deputy had left the woman's children -- ages 14, 10 and 6 -- out on the highway at night to fend for themselves for eight hours.

Randy Jones, the sheriff's spokesman, said the deputy had obtained permission from the woman to leave her children in the care of a male passenger.

According to Jones, Martinez was arrested after an informant told the sheriff that a library employee was using a stolen Social Security number.

The tip came as state authorities were investigating the Alamance County Health Department, whose employees allegedly had been writing work illness excuses using illegal immigrants' false names. Officials have said they found no evidence of wrongdoing. But Martinez's arrest prompted suspicion among immigration reform advocates that authorities had tracked her through confidential medical records, which the sheriff's office has denied.

Jones said that Martinez had "self-identified" her illegal status by using a dead person's Social Security number. After pleading guilty to misuse of a Social Security number, a felony, Martinez was released Aug. 13 on $25,000 bond and placed under house arrest pending deportation hearings.

After Martinez's arrest, the county began checking all of its new employees against a Department of Homeland Security database to verify Social Security numbers. The Sheriff's Department does not target illegal workers or ask criminal suspects about their immigration status, Jones said, "but we have the legal responsibility to act on allegations of a felony crime."

The problem, said Martinez's lawyer, David B. Smith, it that immigration authorities fail to distinguish between undocumented workers who commit serious crimes and those who live productive, law-abiding lives.

Martinez declined to comment on the case.

But Marilyn Tyler, a retired librarian, called the situation in town "pathetic."

"The sheriff's office is using all this energy and time on one woman to tear her life apart, but why?" she said. "This is a situation where you have to use judgment."

Crystal Williams of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. said federal authorities fail to exercise the prosecutorial discretion commonly used by local law enforcement. The approach taken by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she said, is one of "no discretion whatsoever. . . . If they find anyone in violation, they arrest them."

A 2000 memo from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the predecessor to ICE, does instruct agents to consider such mitigating factors as long-term U.S. residency, lack of a criminal record and "expressions of opinion" by community members.

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