Immigration Hide 'n' Seek

INS on offensive; Hispanic activists play defense

Anti-immigration laws passed last year have sparked a Bay Area trench war between the government and Hispanic activists who are scrambling to combat what they see as an all-out offensive by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Last October, Congress passed legislation adding 1,000 new Border Patrol agents annually for each of the next five years; increasing the number of INS investigators by 600; financing pilot employment verification systems in five states, including California; and providing $500 million to compensate states for jailing illegal aliens.

Immigrants legal and illegal are just beginning to feel the bill's effects in the Bay Area. The INS has added 54 new positions to its San Francisco district office alone during the last 12 months, and it has conducted door-to-door neighborhood investigation sweeps in the Mission and raided dozens of small businesses here. A recent three-week business sweep resulted in the arrests of 174 illegal workers in the Bay Area, an INS spokeswoman said last week.

On the other side of this war are volunteers with the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights, who have been canvassing door to door, advising Mission residents to stand their ground before INS agents. Those efforts have been aided by the increased coverage by a local Spanish-language television station that is focusing on changes in immigration laws.

"It's an answer to the needs of the time," says Sandra Thomas Esquivel, news director at KDTV. KDTV has assigned an immigration beat reporter and appointed a volunteer advisory board to help direct immigration coverage.

"A lot of these people, citizens included, aren't aware of their most basic rights," adds Fredy Tejada, a community organizer for the immigrant rights coalition and himself an El Salvadoran immigrant. Tejada has spent a Saturday afternoon knocking on doors in the Mission District, talking to residents through cracked-open doorways, yelling up to second-story windows, and sitting down on the occasional living room couch to spread a message of resistance against the INS.

Tejada's tips might seem rudimentary to most U.S. residents: Don't sign anything until you speak with a lawyer; and if your home is raided by law enforcement officers, don't run, because running will look suspicious.

But this advice is fresh news to many immigrants, who often come from countries where law enforcement bureaucracies don't have a tradition of adhering to due process.

Tejada and his troops are outgunned.
Nationwide deportations by the INS were 28 percent higher during the first quarter when compared to the same time period last year, with 22,595 illegal immigrants sent back to their countries, according to news reports. During the last few months in the Bay Area, the INS has stepped up raids on workplaces known to hire low-wage workers. Carwashes have been a frequent target, with raids in San Ramon and San Rafael, and a request for records targeting the Brushless Car Wash on South Van Ness in San Francisco.

According to Mission residents, the INS has also been sending female agents of Hispanic descent who are fluent in Spanish door to door in the area, asking neighbors, in social-worker fashion, questions about their nationality and immigration status.

The INS has built thousands of new holding cells around the country, making it possible for it to arrest more people.

Immigrants who are apprehended by the INS enter a tougher legal playing field than in past years. As of last year, attorneys receiving aid from the federal Legal Services Corp. aren't allowed to help illegal immigrants. And 1996 legislation made it easier for the government to gain approval to deport immigrants.

"Procedural aspects have been streamlined, making it much more difficult to obtain a review in court, making it much more difficult to provide any sort of oversight or monitoring of INS activities," says Niels Frenzen, directing attorney at Public Council, the legal aid office of the Los Angeles County Bar Association. "Now people can be removed before ever going before a judge."

But the activists have a few factors in their favor. "People recognize us -- we're quite popular with the people," says Tejada, in reference to his anti-INS canvassers. "More and more people are calling us, and I'm getting more and more volunteers. We're seeing a lot of Americanos who are interested in helping out."

Immigrants also benefit from the INS's well-earned reputation for hapless incompetence.

"The reality is that the INS is an extremely poorly managed and disorganized agency. Even with increased enforcement tools, their ability to implement them in an even-handed manner is pretty low," Frenzen says. "The INS is notoriously unable to maintain files, to keep track of people. It's not unusual for me to go to court at a hearing, and a person is in INS detention -- it is not unusual for the INS not to be able to find people. ... Right now, we're seeing some of the greatest delays in the processing of applications than anything that has happened in the past decade."

However successful the INS becomes in fulfilling last year's congressional mandate to deport more illegal aliens, some observers say the agency's Bay Area campaign highlights the faulty economic logic behind the 1996 immigration bill.

"It's the height of hubris to try to dictate in any community what the market should do, and that's what the INS is doing with these raids," says Joel Millman, a Wall Street Journal correspondent and author of a book on immigration. "What the INS should do is ask itself how desperate Californians are to do that kind of job. They say immigrants are stealing jobs. I don't think that formula can be proved. There doesn't seem to be any clamor for that kind of work."

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