Border Patrol officers conducted unrelated raids in Orange and El Toro on Wednesday, apprehending more than 200 alleged illegal immigrants in what is believed to be the largest Orange County sweep in 15 years.
Shortly after 8 a.m., federal officers converged on a street corner near El Toro and Jeronimo roads, where merchants had complained about loitering day-laborers. Thirty-five immigrants were arrested there, officials said.
Meanwhile, other officers--at the request of police and city code inspectors--were fanning out through a crowded low-income apartment complex in east Orange, arresting 170 people.
According to several witnesses, the Border Patrol officers entered the 260-unit Orange Park Villas with guns drawn and began kicking on apartment doors and banging on door frames and windows.
"They kept yelling 'Open up! Open up!' " resident Octillia Breniz said during an interview in Spanish. "They threatened to tear the door down and to shoot their guns if we didn't open it."
Other residents said housing officials yelled in Spanish outside their doors, saying they were there for "inspections for cockroaches." But once inside, the city inspectors motioned for the Border Patrol officers, who entered and searched for illegal immigrants, the residents said.
Border Patrol spokesman Michael Gregg denied Wednesday that officers used any improper tactics. He acknowledged that the apartment raid was conducted without search warrants, but said no warrants were required because Border Patrol agents had been called to back up local police.
Orange Police Lt. Ed Falkenstein said, however, that officers were there to assist the Border Patrol. "If you want any more" detail, he suggested, "call INS." The Border Patrol is a branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"I was terrified," said resident Breniz, who was in the apartment with another woman and several children under the age of 10. "There was so much noise and I was scared because we had five children here."
When Breniz eventually opened the door, officers searched the unit, including its two upstairs bedrooms, a bathroom and the closets but made no arrests.
At another apartment, residents claimed immigration officers broke their front living room window in the course of apprehending one man, leaving behind his wife and 8-month-old child.
Neighbors surrounding the complex at 3138 E. Maple Ave. have long accused it of being a haven for illegal immigrants and a continuing source of litter, noise, parking, crime and sexual harassment complaints.
Area residents have taken various complaints to the Orange City Council at least three times over the past two years. From January to June of this year, police responded to 400 calls in the area, officials said in July, and the city had a code enforcement official assigned almost full-time to the complex.
In July, neighbors won approval of a parking permit program that they hoped would ease traffic congestion and reduce car theft and vandalism that they contended was caused by the overcrowded complex.
"We're all fed up, our property values are all going down," said Phil Conzelman, a homeowner in the area who collected 160 signatures supporting the parking program. "You don't know if it's going to be a safe area anymore."
John Micuda, an Oceanside real estate syndicator who had owned the apartment complex since 1978, said in July that he agreed it was overcrowded. During one random sweep last year, code enforcement officials found 75 people living in four apartments, he said.
The only way to solve the problems at the complex, Micuda said, was "to evict the entire complex, which any businessman isn't going to do."
Instead, Micuda said he wants to demolish the apartments and see condominiums built there.
Orange Mayor Gene Beyer said he considers illegal immigrants to be a major and growing problem in the city.
"We've had citizen complaints for some time in various pockets of the city--overcrowding problems" that have a negative impact on the quality of neighborhoods.
The Wednesday raid came only three weeks after about 150 predominantly Mexican illegal immigrants looking for work on city street corners were apprehended by immigration officers.
Beyer said city police helped control traffic around the area and gave city officials a brief report on the sweep. But the mayor said neither he nor any member of the City Council had any information about the way the raid was conducted.
City Councilman Fred L. Barrera, the only Latino on the council, said he intends "to look into these allegations" today. "I want to get all the facts," Barrera said.
Immigrant advocate Richard Spix branded the involvement of code inspectors as "highly unusual" and accused federal officers of "basically breaking the law."
"They (city inspectors) basically allowed these people to enter for the purposes of conducting a housing inspection," said Spix, an attorney with the Santa Ana-based immigrant rights organization, Hermandad Mexicana Nacional. "Then they call in the INS people who are waiting outside."
Border Patrol spokesman Gregg said the east Orange sweep unfolded when city police went to Orange Park Villas to back up the housing inspectors.