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Feds' raids designed to spread fear

By Nicole Colson | April 28, 2006 | Pages 1 and 4

THE BUSH administration organized a series of immigration raids last week to send an intimidating message to the new immigrant rights movement.

As part of a new crackdown, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, carried out of coordinated raids on IFCO Systems facilities that swept up nearly 1,200 undocumented workers.

In the early morning hours of April 20, ICE agents burst into worksites in Chicago, Cincinnati, Phoenix, Houston and dozens of other cities across 26 states.

In Houston and elsewhere, the Feds used buses to take dozens of people away. Many were immediately deported--without even being allowed to contact their families.

The administration claims that raids like these are to prevent workers from being "exploited." As proof, officials pointed to the fact that at least seven IFCO executives were also arrested in the raids.

But those "executives" turned out to be low- and mid-level managers in most cases--not the real executives sitting in the corporate boardrooms and reaping profits from the exploitation of undocumented workers.

Now, the families of those detained are trying to figure out what to do.

In Chicago, one woman whose husband was arrested told CBS News she didn't know how to explain to her son that his father wouldn't be coming home. "It's a horrible stress," she said. "My son keeps asking me, 'Why isn't daddy isn't home?' I can't eat. I don't know what to do. Who can help me?"

"He has a living here," said the man's brother. "This is where he grew up. He's just like me. He speaks more English than he does Spanish. This is his home, and all of a sudden, this happens. We're afraid of everything. We're afraid if you talk to the wrong person, you might be next. It's crazy. We don't know what to do."

ICE officials claim the raids on IFCO were the result of a yearlong investigation. But the timing was clearly designed to send a message to the immigrant community--which has stepped forward in recent weeks with mass demonstrations demanding their rights and the defeat of proposed legislation that would criminalize undocumented immigrants and anyone who gives them assistance.

In the run-up to the May 1 Great American Boycott--a national day of action for immigrant rights--activists say that the raid on IFCO and the Bush administration's pledge for further crackdowns is an attempt to silence a growing movement. As Don Sherman, director of the Cincinnati Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, told the Associated Press, "I think the timing is very suspicious, because there are a number of rallies coming up around the country promoting immigration reform."

"If [Homeland Security Chief Michael] Chertoff says they had been preparing for this for as long as one year, then why now?" Chicago activist Jorge Mujica asked on the Democracy Now! radio program. "I think it was a message...We aren't criminals according to the law. To cross the border without papers is an administrative fault. It's not a crime, legally. So why is Chertoff using the word 'criminal, criminal, criminal,' over and over?"

The administration has made it clear that the intimidation will continue. "We are going to move beyond the current level of activity to a higher level in each month and year to come," Chertoff said, pledging to "come down as hard as possible" on violators.

Earlier this month, for example, the owners of a chain of Baltimore-area Japanese restaurants agreed to hand over to federal authorities more than $1.1 million after admitting that they hired undocumented workers and kept their tips while forcing them to live in what prosecutors described as "slave labor" conditions.

While a plea deal will likely allow the owners to avoid prison, all of the workers will probably be deported. "Two of the 15 workers--who come from countries as diverse as Nepal and El Salvador--have been locked up since raids on the restaurants last month because they were already facing deportation," the Baltimore Sun reported. "The other 13 must wear ankle bracelets."

As stories like this show, the real victims of the government's crackdown aren't employers, but the millions of hard-working undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

"They're just trying to make an honest living," Chicago activist Denise Najera said in an interview. "They're not trying to ruin American lives. They're not terrorists. They're just trying to survive."

Najera's uncle Adolfo, an undocumented factory worker who lived in the U.S. for the past 17 years, was woken up by authorities at 5 a.m. one morning earlier in April. Without knowing it, Adolfo had been given a deportation order months ago, after he was in a friend's car that was pulled over for a traffic stop.

Now, says Najera, her aunt is trying to put the family's affairs in order so she, Adolfo and their two children, ages 6 and 10, can stay together.

"My aunt, she's selling the car and selling their things," Najera said. "She has to move there with him, because she can't stay here alone, because she doesn't work. People have this 'American Dream.' But it's not a dream of having material wealth. It's just the American dream of having a job, having a place to live, your basic needs...

"People should put themselves in immigrants' shoes. To pick up and leave everything you know to come to this country, and then to be discriminated against when you get here--people look down on you, like you're not human...I think that we need equality. This can't go on."

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