by Leslie Layton
At about 6:30 a.m. on a recent March Monday, a Chico dad left his home with a friend to pick up some milk before going to a construction job. He noticed he was being followed by a Durango van that had parked near his house, and when he stopped, the van parked, too.
He was approached by officers from Immigration, Customs & Enforcement (ICE) who had a few questions. They wanted to verify his name, see identification and know whether he had “papers” that prove legal residency. He and his friend — both undocumented immigrants — were soon handcuffed and placed in the back of the van.
The Chico man and his wife — for the purpose of this story, “David” and “Margarita,” — asked that their real names not be used to protect their family’s privacy. David and his friend were picked up in an immigration sweep that may have stretched from Red Bluff to Gridley over the past few weeks.
In a cell phone interview from Tijuana, David said the ICE officers picked up three more men that morning in Chico. They were taken to ICE headquarters in Sacramento, and David and his friend were among about 120 people from throughout the Central Valley who were deported by plane that evening from Oakland.
Protest vigils were planned this week in response to immigration sweeps elsewhere, with the Chico News & Review reporting that one was scheduled for 7 p.m. today outside ICE Sacramento headquarters.
Alejandro Zelorio, protection and legal affairs consul in the Mexican consulate in Sacramento, said his office had received phone inquiries from Red Bluff, Corning and Chico in recent weeks about a rumored immigration sweep. There were reports – none of which could be confirmed by ChicoSol — that in Orland and Gridley people at shopping plazas had been asked to show proof of legal residency.
Some members of the valley’s Latino community suggested the sweep was retaliation for last month’s immigration reform rallies. But Zelorio said ICE, though it’s no longer conducting the large-scale workplace raids of a few years ago, now deports undocumented immigrants who have committed a non-immigration-related crime or infraction, who they can find “reasonable suspicion” to stop because they may be in violation of a law, and who happen to be present during such stops.
In an interview with ChicoSol, an ICE spokeswoman said she knew of no unusual enforcement activity in the Northern Sacramento Valley and no effort to meet controversial deportation quotas.
David said he has no criminal record. But 15 years after he received a deportation order — almost three weeks ago — immigration agents came for him. By then, he had three children who are U.S. citizens and a home that bears the signature of a conventional, middle-class family. On the mantle over the fireplace are framed pictures of smiling children. In one family photo, David, wearing a light blue, freshly-pressed dress shirt, appears to be a proud and happy father.
That neither he nor Margarita had legal status in this country troubled them. Margarita came to Northern California at 14 on a temporary visa, and in 1996, graduated from Chico High School. Her father, a legal resident, applied to get legal residency for Margarita. Unbeknownst to her at the time, the application was rendered invalid by her marriage to David, who had come to this country illegally in 1992 to join his family here. Two of his siblings are U.S. citizens.
Since then, David has made two unsuccessful efforts to obtain legal residency, one of which the family says was foiled by a shuckster attorney and led to the 1995 deportation order.
Perhaps he thought that after 15 years, the deportation order had been lost in the federal government’s paperwork shuffle. In an April 5 interview, 40-year-old David described a humiliating journey that has traumatized his family. “My whole family is there,” he said of Chico. “I’m worried about my little daughter and kids. My daughter was pretty sad to see me in handcuffs.”
Margarita said David came to their home after his arrest, escorted by ICE officers and looking stunned. “He had no voice…. It seemed like he had lost his voice. I said, ‘David, what happened?'”
The officers asked Margarita if she had “papers;” she said no, “Estoy en tramite” — that she had a legal-residency application submitted. They asked her to sign a court order that would give her a chance to argue her case before an immigration judge before undergoing her own deportation proceedings. David pleaded with her to sign; the ICE officers said she would be deported, too, if she didn’t. What would they do with the three children?
David said the officers then drove around to pick up other people as they checked data on a laptop. One of the men they picked up in Chico was a Dominican, whom they addressed by his name, but also the phrase “HIV Positive,” David said.
In Sacramento, the men’s feet were shackled and their hands chained to their stomachs. Margarita drove to the ICE offices in Sacramento with a girlfriend after packing a small suitcase for David. The two women were stunned to see the men “treated like criminals,” Margarita said, noting that one of the prisoners was barefoot in pajamas. They were bussed to the Oakland airport, and David said the plane stopped in Bakersfield, where another 50 people came on board.
Margarita said David’s friend, who had stayed the night with them and was also deported, was kidnapped, held for ransom and beaten in Tijuana. His Chico family wired the kidnappers $1,500 to free him.
Immigrant rights activists say that’s common; people who have been recently deported arrive with nothing and are easily spotted as kidnap prey in Tijuana.
The sweep coincided with a national debate triggered by news that an ICE official was urging the use of new deportation quotas in a Feb. 22 memo, according to the Washington Post. Reports suggested immigration officers were trying to meet the quotas by targeting undocumented residents who have no criminal background and are therefore more readily deported.
But ICE denies implementing policies that run contrary to the Obama Administration’s stated goal of focusing deportation efforts on undocumented residents who have criminal records. And the official who established the quotas has reportedly been reprimanded.
“Our efforts are focused on dangerous criminal aliens that are the biggest threat to our communities,” said ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley. But an undocumented resident who has ignored a deportation order for many years is certainly vulnerable — even if he has no criminal record. “We do enforce the immigration laws of the country,” she added.
Immigration rights activists portray ICE has an out-of-control agency that answers to no one. “It’s a run-amuck agency that needs Congressional oversight,” said Martine Apodaca, communications director for the Reform Immigration for America organization.
Sacramento immigration law attorney Maribel Herrera, who spoke in Glenn County last summer on immigrant rights as part of an ACLU-sponsored event, said ICE has become more aggressive over the past year. Last summer, she said, her office was “flooded with calls,” often coming from El Dorado County. The agency is focusing some of its effort on old deportation orders, she said.
“ICE views everybody as a criminal if they’re here illegally,” she said, noting that undocumented immigrants usually don’t see themselves as criminals. “They’re just coming for a better life, for a better future. They come to work, to raise a family, and have no malice or intent to harm anyone. In fact, they want to contribute to society.”
In Chico last week, a Chapman Elementary School staffer who works with Spanish-speaking parents said a man on his way to pick up his granddaughter at an after-school program was stopped and held until relatives arrived with his so-called ‘green card.’
The staffer, who asked not to be identified by name, said a climate of fear had pervaded the Latino community and parent attendance at meetings she organizes was dropping off.
In a Monday teleconference with members of the ethnic media, immigration reform advocates said it’s important to keep pressing for legislation. “If we wait, we let ICE continue to deport our loved ones one at a time,” said Jorge Mario Cabrera, communications director for the immigrant rights organization CHIRLA in Los Angeles.
In the meantime, Zelorio said if people are being stopped randomly and without cause, and can provide a photo or video to the consulate, the Mexican government can complain. “The best advice,” he said, “is keep your car clean, your registration current. What you are seeing in Chico is law enforcement being more strict. The economy is bad and they’re frustrated. That’s not the consulate’s view, that’s just what I’ve heard.”
During an interview, Margarita wept and wondered aloud how she’d make the mortgage on the family’s four-bedroom house and pay the bills on her house-cleaning earnings. During a phone conversation with David, Margarita suggested they move to Mexico.
David told her he could make $10 a day in Tijuana. “How can I support my family on that?” he asked her. He planned to leave soon for his hometown in the state of Jalisco.
In October, Margarita goes before an immigration judge. She’s grateful she wasn’t immediately deported, but she says she’s in a kind of jail nevertheless. “Every morning I wake up crying,” she said. “Then I think, ‘he is alive and I’m here and my children need me.'”
Her 9-year-old son has written an essay for school called, “I miss my Dad.” There’s a picture of a child’s face with dripping tears and a bubble with the words, “I want my Dad back.”
A condensed version of this story has appeared in the Chico News & Review.