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Immigrants Deported in INS Sting Operation : Border: About 60 people held in move that advocates say violates agency’s policies and strains its credibility.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Antonio Martinez read the letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service several times, and he got an uneasy feeling each time. After two years of battling the INS to legalize his status so he could remain here with his American wife and daughter, the offer seemed too good to be true.

Come to the Federal Building, bring some identification and we’ll give you a work permit good for a year, the letter said. How can the letter not be authentic, asked Martinez’s wife, Ariel, a Chula Vista native. It was written on INS stationery and said Martinez qualified under the “Immigration and Nationality Act of 1993.”

At the end, Ariel’s optimism and belief in the INS’s credibility won out. On July 20, Martinez, his wife and the couple’s 18-month-old daughter drove to the INS office downtown to pick up his permit.

But instead of being welcomed by their adopted country, Martinez and dozens of others were promptly arrested and deported.

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The unprecedented immigration sting has raised howls of protest from immigration attorneys and concerns by some INS officials, who fear that the sting could undercut the dual role of the INS, an agency that arrests and deports hundreds of thousands of foreigners annually even as it eases the arrival of many more.

In effect, the sting traded on the goodwill the INS has established among millions of people seeking legal immigration through amnesty and various other programs. That credibility has been particularly important to the agency since passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which created the amnesty program that has allowed more than 3 million immigrants, more than half of them California residents, to gain legal status.

The sting letter was sent to Martinez and more than 600 others, resulting in 60 apprehensions, though 18 immigrants were released for a variety of technical reasons.

Attorneys who saw the letter quickly determined that it was an INS sting because the law referred to in the letter does not exist. Those attorneys say that the letter violated the agency’s deportation procedures and that the agency illegally deported some people.

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Rudy Murillo, INS spokesman in San Diego, defended the sting and denied that any of the deportations were illegal.

But some INS officials are concerned that the service’s credibility may suffer when word of the operation gets around. Authorities initially hoped that the sting would get no public attention, but responded to questions when The Times learned about it.

Susan Alva, project coordinator with the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles, said Friday that the group has received complaints about the letters and intended to alert immigrants to be suspicious of such correspondence.

“In one case, a family called looking for help because a family member responded to the letter, went to the INS office and never returned,” Alva said. “We’re putting out a warning to the immigrant community through the Spanish-language media to advise people to consult an attorney if they get a letter like this.”

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Carl Shusterman, a Los Angeles immigration attorney and former INS prosecutor, said: “People won’t know whether to trust the INS now because of the sting letter. The INS has tried hard through the amnesty program to build trust in the community. But they’re tearing up this trust by sending out a sting letter. Most people want to kick out illegal aliens, but they want to be fair about it.”

Even the INS official in San Diego who planned the sting, Bob Mandgie, expressed concern about what this could do to INS credibility.

“You don’t want to do too many of them (stings), because it’s important for us to send letters to people to verify things,” said Mandgie, who drafted the letter, which was approved by officials at INS headquarters in Washington. “You don’t want to knock the credibility of your letters by sending out too many letters like this one.”

Many law enforcement agencies have resorted to a variety of sting operations in recent years, typically to target felons or hardened criminals. In many of these cases, police agencies send out letters from a false business promising cash or another prize.

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The INS conducted a sting in El Paso in 1990 using the letterhead Argim (migra spelled backward) Ford, a phony car dealer, and lured immigrants by telling them they might have won new cars.

But local INS officials said they could not recollect another sting in which the agency lured immigrants by using the promise of work permits.

Mandgie, assistant director for detention and deportation in the San Diego district, said the operation targeted people who were under judges’ orders of deportation, though several who received letters disputed this.

“Everyone had gone before an immigration judge. All we did was enforce the judges’ orders. We were targeting people here illegally and who had been through the system. They (had) absconded. They chose not to appear (previously when ordered deported),” Mandgie said.

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In most cases, Mandgie said, those who got the letters had jobs and he described them as “really good people . . . who were in the country illegally.” Only two of the apprehended immigrants were on welfare, he said.

After promising a work permit, the letter said: “Since this is a one-time event, failure to report to this office at this time will render you ineligible to receive your employment authorization.”

Ariel Martinez, 25, said her husband’s deportation to Mexico was particularly devastating because he had been approved for an immigrant visa. Those married to U.S. citizens usually can get residency cards without lengthy delays.

Martinez, 27, who is employed as a truck driver, had received an earlier letter asking him to report to the U.S. Consulate in Juarez, Mexico, on July 8 to obtain his work permit. However, their daughter, who is also a U.S. citizen, became ill, and the couple were forced to cancel the appointment and requested a new date, Ariel Martinez said.

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Her husband was waiting for a new appointment date when he received the sting letter from the local INS office.

“He was suspicious about the letter, but I thought it really had to do with his green card,” she said. “We went there with our marriage certificate and our birth certificates thinking he was going to get his green card. Instead, they deported him and wouldn’t listen to anything we had to say. I thought he had some rights because he’s married to a U.S. citizen.”

The couple and their daughter are now living in an apartment in Tijuana. Ariel Martinez said she has hired a San Diego attorney to represent her husband in a lawsuit against the INS.

Shusterman, the immigration attorney, said his client would probably also have been deported had he not shared the letter with Shusterman. The client, whom Shusterman identified only as a Romanian who is a successful real estate investor in Orange County, filed a motion to reopen his deportation case before the Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington.

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The Romanian entered the United States as a political refugee, but was ordered deported after serving his last sentence for two drug convictions. Shusterman said his client, who is also married to a U.S. citizen, is free on $10,000 bond pending the appeal to the board.

“This was totally illegal. To begin with, how can they deport someone whose case is before the appeals board and who is free on bond? The INS also violated at least two of its own regulations in my client’s case. First, the law says they have to give an alien 72 hours notice to appear for deportation. This didn’t happen,” Shusterman said.

“Secondly, INS regulations require that an alien’s attorney receive copies of any correspondence that the service sends to the client. I didn’t get a copy of the INS letter, but my client did,” he added.

INS officials said they could not find the Romanian’s file. About Martinez, they confirmed that he is married to a U.S. citizen but said his deportation was appropriate.

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Mandgie said INS officials avoided sending copies of the letters to immigrants’ attorneys because they feared that the lawyers would alert their clients to the sting. He also said that two of the immigrants apprehended but later released were freed because they had pending appeals to their deportation orders.

In addition, Mandgie said, two others were released because they had become permanent residents. Four immigrants who received the letter were also released because they were “the right names but wrong persons,” Mandgie said.

An Iraqi who is in the United States illegally was released because the INS could not obtain travel documents to fly him to Iraq, he added. Two Nicaraguans were freed because they are being considered for political refugee status and immigration officials need permission from the State Department before they can be deported.

Another three youths, immigrants, ages 16, 18 and 20, were also released when authorities learned they were in high school and their parents were in the United States legally, Mandgie said.

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