Crackdown here prompts illegal workers to be prepared — just in case
By JAMES PINKERTON Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Aug. 12, 2008, 11:16PM
It's not unusual for families to formulate emergency plans for fires, hurricanes or other disasters.
But there are some Houston families developing a new wrinkle to contingency planning — they're preparing for the aftermath of an immigration raid.
In the wake of recent work site enforcement raids by federal agents in Houston, illegal immigrants are meeting with immigration lawyers, drawing up custody documents so relatives can care for their children and stashing money to bail themselves or relatives out of detention.
Local activists are urging them to prepare in case they are detained by la migra, the Spanish term for immigration agents. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that there are 400,000 illegal immigrants in the Houston area.
''Part of the community education work is to make sure we have a checklist a family has ready, including a power of attorney for children, who's going to pick up the children from school, which family member will have all the paperwork," said Maria Jimenez, a coordinator at the Central American Resource Center in Houston.
Juan Diaz, a 33-year-old day laborer from El Salvador, said he's ready if he gets detained. He and other family members have consulted an immigration lawyer — who advised him not to sign or say anything — and saved cash to post an immigration bond.
''We have made plans if I'm picked up," said Diaz, who has been working in Houston since arriving in the U.S. three years ago. ''My family is going to call and try to get me out of detention. I have saved up to $6,000 for bond, but I don't know if that will be enough."
Robert Rutt, special agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement criminal investigation office in Houston, said planning for an immigration arrest is ''the responsible thing to do."
''Anybody in the United States illegally is subject to arrest at any time or any place, and making preparations for the inevitable is always wise," Rutt said. ''We in the Gulf Coast region prepare for hurricanes and adverse weather by making supplies available and getting important documents together, and being arrested for being in the U.S. illegally requires the same type of preparations."
Driving the preparations is a high-profile federal immigration enforcement crackdown that has painted a bull's-eye on the back of many illegal immigrants. Through the end of July, a nine-month campaign detained about 4,500 undocumented workers, 111 employers and more than 26,000 illegal immigrants who defied judges' orders to leave the country.
The planning is not just taking place in Houston.
In August 2007, ICE agents detained 180 workers at a chicken-processing plant near Hamilton, Ohio.
Community activists there are helping undocumented workers obtain U.S. passports for their children, as well as establishing dual citizenship so their children can attend schools if they return to Latin America.
There are many, however, who want to encourage illegal immigrants to leave the country rather than help them.
''Well I'm not surprised it's happening," Louise Whiteford, president of Texans for Immigration Reform in Houston, said about the raid plans. ''I've gotten to the point of wondering if anyone worries about maintaining ourselves as a sovereign country."
In Houston, the June 25 work site raid on Action Rags USA galvanized community groups who were ill-prepared to help the 166 detained workers.
Since the raid, a number of nonprofit organizations, attorneys, elected officials and business groups have formed the Houston Raid Rapid Response Team.
''There's a need because the raid at Action Rags demonstrated the devastating effect on the families and communities," said Jimenez, the longtime Houston activist.
''We learned that families are disorganized by a raid, and face not only legal but serious economic, social and psychological problems."
Lawrence Rushton, an immigration lawyer, is helping the team assemble a list of local attorneys willing to help workers picked up in future raids.
''Unfortunately in Houston, we didn't have any kind of response plan set up," Rushton said. ''That's what we're doing now, trying to set up a database or pool of attorneys to represent people caught up in these raids, either pro bono or for minimal cost."
Rushton said most of his clients contact him after a family member has been detained, but more are asking for advice in advance.
For student, 'It's scary'
The prospect of his family being deported is terrifying to Pedro Arevalo, an 18-year-old college student born here shortly after his family moved from Mexico. His mother and father, two sisters and a brother are all undocumented and live in Houston.
Arevalo cannot file an application for permanent residency for his parents and siblings until he turns 21. So for now, the family is trying to save money in case of an arrest.
''It's scary," he said. ''I mean, they're hunting these people down like they are animals and they aren't — they're here to work. They're just trying to become normal, working, functional members of society."