Protest Retaliation?

For many in Austin's immigrant community, the hope that swelled from the massive April 10 immigrant rights protests has turned to fear

For many in Austin's immigrant community, the hope that swelled from the massive April 10 immigrant-rights protests has turned to fear this past week. On the heels of the highly publicized Immigration and Customs Enforcement bust of Danish pallet-makers IFCO, during which ICE officials arrested 1,187 undocumented workers across the country – 270 in Texas alone – come numerous rumors and reports of a covert immigration crackdown sweeping the city. The fear in the community is such that, this past Sunday, vendors and shoppers fled El Gran Mercado, a flea market on Pleasant Valley Road, when word got around that ICE was on the premises, though no one has reported actually having seen any immigration officials.

After receiving numerous phone calls from people who say they've been stopped in their cars by ICE officers, and from scared parents keeping their kids out of school, PODER Executive Director Susana Almanza contacted the Texas Civil Rights Project for some legal aid. "This is really a wave of terror in the community," said Almanza at a press conference held at the TCRP offices on Montopolis Avenue Tuesday morning. "People are scared to go shopping, to send their kids to school."

TCRP Director Jim Harrington says that his organization has talked with eyewitnesses to "at least a dozen, if not more" raids that have happened in the past week, in the predominately Latino neighborhoods around Reagan High School as well as in the parking lots of Fiesta, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart. Though Harrington says the TCRP was contacted by Fiesta employees during the alleged raid on Sunday evening, Fiesta spokesman Bernie Murphy would only say that these were "unfounded rumors" and that the INS "doesn't do that."

This, according to Harrington, is precisely the issue. In a letter to U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton and ICE Field Office Director Marc J. Moore in San Antonio, Harrington writes, "Not only would such profiling be illegal, but we are particularly concerned that these activities ... may be geared deliberately toward chilling the exercise of free speech and assembly rights with regard to the planned national A Day Without an Immigrant boycott on May 1 and in retaliation for the massive demonstrations in Austin on April 10."

For the record, undocumented workers aren't the only ones being scared into potential silence. In Los Angeles, the city that saw the largest turnout of immigrant rights demonstrators, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante both received anonymous death threats – Bustamante's reportedly in the form of a postcard reading, "The only good Mexican is a dead Mexican."

Other than the IFCO bust, Nina Pruneda of ICE Public Affairs would not verify whether or not any of these raids happened. "First of all, we don't call them raids," she explained. "We call them enforcement actions. Secondly, we don't do random stops on the street or at parking lots. All enforcement actions are well-planned, well-thought-out operations." When asked whether a well-planned enforcement action could occur at the parking lot of Home Depot, a well-known gathering place for undocumented day laborers, Pruneda said she was unable to make that information public. "What I can say is, these people are becoming cognizant of the fact that they are in this country illegally, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement has stepped up."

"This is a sophisticated operation by the INS. They come and are gone by the time we get there, so we have no evidence that they were actually there," said Harrington of the alleged raids that have been brought to his attention. "It is really important to get the message out there encouraging the community to document what is happening when it is happening, so we can get this in the courts."

*Oops! The following correction ran in the May 5, 2006 issue: In News story "Protest Retaliation?" company IFCO was misidentified as IFCA. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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