A Mexican-born San Diego woman who obtained legal status last year under the U.S. government's amnesty program says that agents of the U.S. Border Patrol arrested her and deliberately destroyed her documentation last week, and then held her incommunicado for almost 12 hours before forcing her to accompany them to the U.S.-Mexico border, where she was released.
The woman, Guadalupe Rodriguez Sanchez, 26, a housekeeper for a La Jolla family, said she quickly returned to San Diego, but she has been left without documents and now fears she has no proof of her legal status if immigration authorities arrest her again.
"Why did they issue the documents if they were just going to destroy them?" Rodriguez Sanchez asked at a San Diego news conference called by Roberto L. Martinez, a community activist and longtime critic of the Border Patrol.
The case, Martinez said, was the most blatant example to surface yet demonstrating how the Border Patrol has been illegally harassing amnesty-seekers and prospective amnesty applicants, contrary to the provisions of the new immigration law.
"To us, this is a very important case, because it confirms that there's an organized campaign to nullify the whole amnesty program," said Martinez, border representative here for the American Friends Service Committee, the social action arm of the Quaker Church.
Late Monday, Border Patrol authorities were not available to comment on the allegations made by Rodriguez Sanchez. However, U.S. officials have vociferously denied as unfounded the persistent charges that the patrol is preventing eligible foreigners from applying for amnesty or otherwise undercutting the legalization program.
Harold Ezell, western regional commissioner for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, parent body of the Border Patrol, said last week in San Diego: "I think (the Border Patrol's) record here is as good as anywhere in the country."
Martinez and representatives of other immigrant-rights groups maintain that Border Patrol agents based in San Diego--which houses the nation's largest patrol contingent--have routinely sent Mexican citizens back to Mexico even though they may qualify for amnesty. The practice, if true, would violate provisions of the new immigration law requiring that officers allow foreigners with "non-frivolous" or "prima facie" amnesty cases to remain in the United States and file their claims.
"It's happening too many times to consider this just an isolated incident," said Martinez, who said he plans to file a complaint with the INS.
Rodriguez Sanchez, one of eight children, said she came to the United States 14 years ago, at the age of 12, to live with relatives in San Diego after leaving her home in the Mexican interior state of Nayarit. She said she attended school in San Diego, graduating from Roosevelt Junior High School and San Diego High School. She would appear to qualify easily under the amnesty guidelines, which require that applicants have lived in the United States since 1982.
Shortly after 8 a.m. on Jan. 11, Rodriguez Sanchez said, she was riding in a car on her way to work with two friends--both of whom were undocumented--when a Border Patrol van ordered the car to stop on a La Jolla street. She said she wasn't scared, as she had received her "temporary resident" card from the INS in November after applying for amnesty. Bolstering her confidence, she said, was the fact that she had recently traveled to Tijuana on three occasions, and on each time she was allowed to re-enter the United States without problems after showing the card to U.S. Border authorities.
When she was arrested last week, however, Rodriguez Sanchez said one of the two officers told her in Spanish that the documents were no good. Then, she said, the other agent took her paper work--including the temporary resident card, her driver's license and Social Security card--and ripped them up in front of her; he placed the ripped pieces in the Border Patrol van, she said.
Realizing she was probably going to be sent back to Mexico, Rodriguez Sanchez said, her thoughts turned to her 1-year-old child, Juan Manuel Montana, who was being cared for by her sister at the time. "I was so scared, and I asked myself, 'What's going to happen to my son? What's going to happen to my son?' "
Afterward, Rodriguez Sanchez said, she and her two friends were placed in the back of the Border Patrol van while the officers drove about, seeking other undocumented immigrants. By about 11 a.m., she said, all those picked up by the agents were driven to the Border Patrol complex adjacent to the San Clemente checkpoint. She remained in custody all day, she said, until she and the other Mexicans were put on a bus and driven to the border and the pedestrian entrance to Tijuana inside Mexico, where they were let off the bus at about 8 p.m. She then telephoned an aunt, who helped her return to the United States, she said.
After her initial arrest on Jan. 11, Rodriguez Sanchez said, the Border Patrol agents never questioned her about her legal status or anything else, nor did they inform her of her right to a formal hearing. She said she was never asked to sign anything. Asked why she didn't pose any questions or demand to see an attorney, Rodriguez Sanchez said she was intimidated and fearful.
If indeed there is no record of her arrest, Rodriguez Sanchez may have difficulties proving her allegations. She also does not know the names of the two agents involved. Moreover, she says her two friends who witnessed the incident have returned to Mexico, and have no plans to come to San Diego.
Now, Rodriguez Sanchez says she only wants to get her documents back and get on with her life. Fortunately, she retained photocopies of her temporary residence card--a fact that is likely to facilitate her application for new documentation. Until she receives the temporary card, however, she is subject to the unnerving prospect of once again being picked up and sent back to Tijuana.
"I'm afraid I might be arrested on the street," she said.