Trial Targets INS Raids of Workplaces for Illegal Aliens

Times Staff Writer

Marcos Gutierrez stopped as soon as an immigration agent ordered him to halt. But he refused to comply with the next command--that he drop to his knees.

"There's no reason for me to get on my knees for anyone except God," he said in a San Jose courtroom recently. Recalling a July, 1983, raid at a furniture factory where he worked as a saw operator, he said he was handcuffed to two co-workers, called "wetback" and worse, and pushed to the ground.

The testimony came at a trial in which civil rights attorneys are attacking what the Immigration and Naturalization Service views as one of its most important tools for finding illegal aliens--so-called "workplace surveys." In the surveys, agents enter factories, often without search warrants, and question anyone they believe may be an illegal alien.

The lawyers hope to persuade U.S. District Judge Robert P. Aguilar to issue a permanent injunction barring the INS from conducting such raids, unless they first obtain search warrants naming specific people to be arrested.

In addition, the plaintiffs hope the judge will find that immigration agents routinely insult and unduly rough up people in their zeal to find illegal aliens holding factory jobs, and that agents' superiors do not take complaints of misconduct seriously.

Agents Called Abusive

Perhaps the most shocking testimony came from Ramon Estrada, 57, who was arrested with 70 other workers at a mushroom farm near Half Moon Bay in 1982. When he refused to answer questions in an interrogation, Estrada testified, agents became so abusive that they pushed his head toward dog excrement.

John M. True, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, attributed the treatment to an attempt by agents to "make an example" of Estrada because he had demanded to speak to his lawyer and may have been urging others to do the same.

The INS, while disputing claims that it mistreats arrestees, contends that requiring search warrants would prevent agents from conducting the surveys, making it much harder to enforce the new Immigration Reform and Control Act's sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens.

U.S. Atty. Joseph Russoniello of San Francisco is underscoring the case's importance by arguing it himself. In his opening statement, he said the INS is simply carrying out its "congressional mandate to secure workplaces for American citizens and lawful permanent residents." He maintained that the INS "conducted its business in accordance with the law."

If there was any misconduct in the raids, Russoniello said, it was "deviant behavior," and not evidence of a "pattern or practice, and certainly nothing which would reflect a policy of Immigration and Naturalization Service."

The lawsuit stems from Operation Jobs, a nationwide series of highly publicized factory sweeps in 1982 and 1983 aimed at "notorious employers of illegal aliens." Thousands of people were deported as a result.

Part of a Reagan Administration effort to reduce unemployment, Operation Jobs was one of the INS' most concerted efforts to deport illegal aliens and open "higher-paying" jobs to citizens and legal residents. In the factories that were raided in the San Francisco area, the top wage was $8 an hour.

The raids entangled the INS in lawsuits here and elsewhere. In a Los Angeles case, civil rights lawyers are arguing that aliens have a right to speak to an attorney before they are questioned. Important as that may be, the plaintiffs' lawyers see the case in Aguilar's court as especially significant because it attacks the procedure used to arrest people in the first place.

Injunction in Effect

In 1985, Aguilar issued a preliminary injunction that temporarily prohibits raids without search warrants. In the trial, government officials hope to persuade Aguilar to lift the injunction, contending that it precludes them from doing their job in Northern California factories.

Because illegal aliens have little or no documentation, officials argue, the INS is unable to gather enough information to persuade judges to issue search warrants.

"I believe the injunction is designed to make it impossible to carry out the very proven and tried method of apprehending and removing illegal aliens in the workplace," said Harold Ezell, Western regional director of the INS.

Alan L. Schlosser, of the American Civil Liberties Union, predicted "a renewed emphasis on factory raids" because of the new law's provision allowing sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens.

"Unless we get a permanent injunction, they will do the same sorts of things," said Schlosser, who is arguing the case with attorneys from such groups as California Rural Legal Assistance, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Employment Law Center.

The suit, being tried without a jury, is entering its fourth week and is expected to last two months longer. Immigrants and U.S. citizens who witnessed the raids or were arrested are testifying about INS tactics now. Immigration officials and agents will testify in the defense portion of the trial.

Brought on behalf of all Latinos in Northern California, the case focuses on actions taken in the San Francisco area. But the decision in the San Jose case could be used as precedent in other areas.

Seek Employers' Permission

In most instances, the INS enters workplaces with employers' consent. But the plaintiffs' attorneys contend that immigration agents coerced employers to gain entry and then singled out Latinos for interrogation. When agents did obtain warrants, the documents--called warrants of inspection--were so broad that they violated the constitutional right against illegal searches, according to the plaintiffs. Such warrants generally are used for health or workplace safety inspections.

Despite repeated allegations of misconduct, the INS has investigated only one allegation of misconduct during a factory raid since 1982, said Steven A. Brick, an attorney for the plaintiffs. During that period, no INS agent was disciplined for violating the rights of the accused, he said.

The sole investigation involved actions of one agent at Modern Mode Inc., a furniture factory in the Alameda County city of San Leandro. About 20 INS and Border Patrol agents arrived on the morning of July 20, 1983, and began questioning, then handcuffing workers.

When Jose Mendes, plant superintendent and a legal U.S. resident from Portugal, demanded a copy of the warrant, an agent replied, "You don't have no rights to ask me what's going on," Mendes testified.

Forced to Ground

INS agents told Mendes that he would be arrested unless he went away. Mendes' run-in might have ended with him walking away. But as he left, he told the judge, he cursed the agents. One agent then ordered another to "get him."

Before Mendes could turn, Agent Willie Witt Jr. grabbed him around the neck, forced him to the ground, then threw him from a loading dock to the ground, about three feet below.

Mendes began hyperventilating as he sat, handcuffed, in an INS van. When he asked agents to roll down the windows, one of them replied, "You should have thought about that before." Mendes was arrested on suspicion of assaulting a federal officer. Prosecutors declined to issue charges, but Mendes spent a night in San Francisco County Jail.

Anthony Ratto, owner of Modern Mode, wrote to President Reagan about the incident. Describing himself as a "loyal Republican," he said: "Mr. President, something wrong occurred at my plant on July 20, and I believe the facts should be brought to light."

As a result, the INS investigated--but not until more than a year later, according to documents released to the plaintiffs. An INS internal affairs investigator interviewed none of the witnesses and never contacted Mendes. Instead, the investigator relied on notes an FBI agent took in interviews with INS agents and Mendes, and on depositions of some of the workers.

The INS found no evidence of wrongdoing when the investigation was concluded in September, 1984. INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson wrote Witt that the charge was "unsubstantiated," and he "sincerely regretted any hardship or inconvenience you may have experienced."

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