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One day last August, public interest lawyer Renee Saucedo was working in her Mission District office when she got an agitated call from a client she was representing in a labor dispute.
Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents were raiding the apartment, said the client, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, whom she declined to name to protect his security. What should he do?
"I told him: 'Whatever you do, don't open the door,' " Saucedo recalls. "He said: 'That's going to be kind of hard since they're entering the apartments with keys.' "
What were INS agents doing raiding apartments in the Mission with keys?
The call incensed Saucedo, who has joined with attorneys from two other public interest law firms and several Latino community groups to document alleged civil rights violations by the INS in its war against undocumented workers from Sonoma to Half Moon Bay. They are considering a lawsuit to force the agency to respect the rights of undocumented immigrants.
The INS has been especially active this year in actions against undocumented workers and their employers.
The agency raided the Nurserymen's Exchange in Half Moon Bay last month, arresting and deporting around 60 mostly Mexican men and women. Raids have also netted scores of day laborers at shopping centers and on street corners in Oakland, Fairfield, and San Rafael in recent weeks.
Two apartment buildings in the Mission were hit in four raids over the summer. In those raids, INS agents allegedly entered apartments -- either with keys in hand or with help from management -- arresting and deporting a score of residents.
"What's been consistent throughout this process is that the INS has no warrant for anyone's arrest and has no permission to enter a household," says Martha Jimenez, a staff attorney with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
"Two or three men will come in, begin ransacking the house in the early morning hours, handcuffing them. Sometimes they let them dress; sometimes they don't.
"They speak very brusquely. They use bad words. They are very harsh to people. These things are done in full view of children."
INS District Director Thomas Schiltgen denies his agents have violated anyone's rights -- or are out to terrorize undocumented workers.
"There were a lot of accusations and stories that were thrown at us as far as the terrible things that INS was doing," Schiltgen says of talks he held in September with the Latino activists. "If anybody has specific evidence of wrongdoing on the part of INS officers, not only will I accept that and look into it, but I welcome it.
"We're concerned that we operate in a proper fashion."
But the immigration attorneys say INS tactical abuses belie the pretext of ordinary law enforcement. The real strategy -- they say -- is to create an atmosphere of panic among undocumented Latino workers in the hope they will leave on their own.
"It's nothing short of a terroristic attack on the community that is calculated to create fear," Jimenez says.
Tulio Serrano, a Salvadoran who is coordinator for the East Bay Central American Refugee Committee, says that fear of authority is a powerful psychic force for Central Americans -- especially those from war-torn El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.
"We're all afraid," says Serrano, who came to the U.S. six years ago after the Salvadoran National Guard killed his two brothers and his sister. "We think -- especially people who have come from countries at war -- that the same thing is going to happen here: that we will be shot, that people will come for us in our homes, where we work."
Serrano believes the INS is leveraging those anxieties by calculating a maximum of severity into its raids.
"Their idea is to incite despair in our community," Serrano says. "[Immigration officials] think, 'If they are despondent, they might leave on their own accord.' "
Hope Frye, a San Francisco attorney who is past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says INS agents conducted nighttime raids on the homes of undocumented workers at a San Rafael car wash after obtaining their names and addresses from an audit of the business.
"The only purpose for it was terror," says Frye. "If they come with guns, wearing flak jackets, it's terrifying. And the word travels fast. They are trying to drive people further underground."
The underground legal and political status of immigrants has complicated the efforts of activists to organize resistance to the alleged excesses of the INS.
The activists say the INS has a psychological edge simply because of anti-immigrant hostility, which neuters erstwhile allies of the immigrants.
"To the extent that the INS violates people's constitutional rights, they get away with it because of the anti-immigrant sentiment that has been stirred up," Frye says.
Criticizing Gov. Pete Wilson and the leaders of the immigration control movement, Frye adds: "These people are in the business of peddling wholesale hate. They have created a climate in which people of genuine good will are either afraid to care or don't."
And because employers face penalties -- $1,000 per employee -- for knowingly hiring undocumented workers, they have no incentive to protest raids in the workplace or to resist INS investigations.