News Column

Deportation Protests Escalate in Inland Empire

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As members of Congress work to hammer out immigration-reform proposals in Washington, Inland immigrant-rights activists are stepping up protests against deportations in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Two demonstrations in the past few weeks highlighted what activists alleged were U.S. Border Patrol stops of Latino workers without evidence they are undocumented immigrants. Activists filed a complaint against the actions with the agency that oversees the Border Patrol and are planning to lodge another complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The protests underline the larger political challenges in enacting comprehensive immigration reform.

Demonstrators want an end to all deportations while immigration-reform talks continue in Washington. Immigrant-rights activists nationwide have called for at least a moratorium on deportations of undocumented immigrants who are not serious criminals.

But some members of Congress are calling for stepped-up enforcement and border security before immigration reform is considered. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, who represents most of Temecula, said legalizing the status of illegal immigrants shouldn't even be discussed until the border is so secure that not a single person is able to cross illegally.

Public opinion falls somewhere between ending deportations and requiring a hermetically sealed border, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former Republican strategist.

"The challenge for elected officials in both parties is to try to draw a distinction between the loudest voices on both sides and the broader public opinion," he said.

Stopping or dramatically scaling back deportations probably would kill immigration-reform efforts, Schnur said.

Emilio Amaya, executive director of the San Bernardino Community Service Center, an immigrant-assistance organization, acknowledges that a big reduction in deportations would likely hurt the chances of comprehensive immigration reform. He sees them as part of an Obama administration effort to attract Republican support for immigration reform.

"The problem with this from our perspective is they're deporting some of the people who could benefit from immigration reform," Amaya said, referring to undocumented immigrants who likely would qualify for legalization if the law is changed. "I think it's a contradiction."

DEPORTATION TARGETS

Deportations under the Obama administration are at record levels, at nearly 410,000 in fiscal year 2012.

The administration has said that it is focusing its deportation efforts on serious criminals, recent border crossers and repeat immigration-law violators.

But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics show that only 19 percent of deportees in fiscal year 2012 were convicted of the most serious crimes, such as murder, rape, child sexual abuse, drug trafficking and some categories of theft and burglary. Another 12 percent were convicted of less serious felonies, or of three or more misdemeanors.

About 41 percent had recently crossed the border or had repeatedly violated immigration law by, for example, returning to the United States after deportation.

The other 28 percent -- about 115,000 people -- were convicted only of minor crimes or none at all.

The two Inland protests were called after an alleged Jan. 11 raid at a site in Home Gardens where day laborers wait for work, and another on Feb. 5 in which six painting and construction workers allegedly were stopped in and near a Wildomar parking lot and asked for identification. At least one was later deported, activists said.

When agents approach workers, they do not have evidence that they are undocumented, said Suzanne Foster, executive director of the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center, which works with day laborers in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

"It's just go to a corner and grab as many people as they can," Foster said during a March 4 demonstration in front of the Murrieta Border Patrol station, a sea of white Border Patrol vans and SUVs behind a metal fence in the background. "They have no right to grab people without reasonable suspicion."

The Border Patrol declined to say whether the agency raids Inland day-labor sites or stops workers to ask for identification.

'LOW-HANGING FRUIT'

Andy Ramirez, president of the Chino-based Law Enforcement Officers Advocates Council, which supports increased Border Patrol enforcement, said agents have a right to question workers at day-labor sites.

Many illegal immigrants look for work there, because they don't have to worry about employers inquiring about their immigration status, he said.

"I mean, they're there," said Ramirez, who believes Border Patrol agents should make far more arrests than they do now. "Illegal aliens are there. Everyone knows that."

Jose Daniel Guzman, legal resources coordinator for Justice for Immigrants Coalition of Inland Southern California, said he has received repeated reports of Border Patrol agents stopping Latino construction and gardening workers in parking lots.

"They're going after the low-hanging fruit, not the hard-to-catch criminals," Guzman said.

The coalition includes the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino, immigrant-rights groups and labor unions.

Jesus Chavarin, 56, a legal U.S. resident who attended the Murrieta protest, said he has been questioned repeatedly at a Lake Elsinore day-labor site about his immigration status. He said agents let him go after he showed them his green card. Others are arrested, he said.

Meinardo Martinez Romero, 44, said he was in the parking lot of a Corona shopping center doing maintenance work Jan. 11 when Border Patrol agents approached him and then arrested him when he couldn't show them identification.

Martinez said that, while he was in detention, agents asked him to sign a "voluntary departure" form, in which those apprehended agree to leave the country without challenging efforts to deport them. After he refused, he was released, he said. Martinez said he applied seven years ago for legal residency, through his U.S.-citizen mother, but hasn't yet been approved.

Guzman said people like Martinez who are considered "low priority" under Obama administration guidelines sometimes are let go after being arrested.

But others are coerced to sign the voluntary departure forms, he said. About 10 of those arrested recently in the Wildomar and Home Gardens areas were deported after signing the forms, he said.

The Border Patrol said in a statement that "all accusations of misconduct are taken seriously" and that "appropriate disciplinary action will be taken" against those agents guilty of misconduct.

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