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INS Agents’ Conduct During Sweep Attacked

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Federal immigration agents conducting a sweep for illegal immigrants at a Camarillo manufacturing plant made offensive racial and religious remarks to several employees, company officials alleged Thursday.

Twenty agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Services office in Camarillo rounded up about 180 employees of Wilwood Engineering Inc. during the shift change Wednesday afternoon. The sweep followed a routine documents check that had been conducted earlier this year.

Rosemary Melville, deputy director for the INS Los Angeles district, said agents decided to scour the plant in the 4700 block of Calle Bolero because company officials could not verify the immigration status of as many as 72 employees.

A day after the sweep, in which employees were corralled into a small training room, the company president and a handful of employees lashed out at the federal agents’ conduct. They contended several Latinos were addressed generically as “Pedro,” one Jewish employee was greeted as “rabbi” and a handcuffed employee was informed he would be shot if he tried to bolt.

Citing a pending investigation, Melville declined to say how many Wilwood employees were detained during the sweep. She said any complaints filed against agents would be investigated thoroughly and impartially.

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Wilwood’s human resources manager, Kim Christensen, said 10 employees were detained Wednesday and three were later released.

Bill Wood, owner of the plant that manufactures disc brakes for race cars and recreational vehicles, said he was appalled by the agents’ behavior. Wood said he is consulting lawyers and considering filing a formal complaint against the INS and specifically the lead agent, whom employees identified as William Rogers.

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At the very least, Wood said, his employees are owed an apology.

“I couldn’t believe this was happening,” said Wood, a Thousand Oaks resident. “I’m a right-wing guy, proud to be an American. We follow the law and intend to keep following the law. I know the agents have a job to do, but for federal officers to use ethnic remarks and terrorize people, I was stunned. We had women crying in the hallways.”

Without discussing specifics, Melville said she was familiar with the Wilwood allegations. She said federal agents Thursday contacted Wilwood officials and informed them how to file a complaint, should they choose to do so, with the INS Office of Internal Audit in Washington.

“We heard of these allegations and, of course, are very disturbed to think it may have happened,” Melville said. “We don’t tolerate any kind of inappropriate language or any kind of unprofessional behavior.”

Still, she said, “We’re open to the potential that something would indeed have been said that was inappropriate.”

Beyond an internal INS probe, the FBI also has the jurisdiction to investigate the matter if contacted. “If someone feels their civil rights have been violated, they could come to the FBI and file a complaint,” said Laura Bosley, FBI spokeswoman in Los Angeles.

A company official said a field representative for Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) is expected to visit the plant today to discuss the matter.

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Wilwood employee Francisco Rodriguez of Oxnard said he isn’t certain whether he will file a complaint, but said the sweep frightened him.

Rodriguez, who described himself as a naturalized citizen, said he was detained for three hours when agents told him his driver’s license was not sufficient proof of the 41-year-old’s right to work in the United States.

Rodriguez said Thursday he had offered to have his wife bring copies of his fingerprints, an old green card and his current passport to the plant to show agents, but was still hauled away.

“They were very rude,” the machine programmer said. “It escalated to the point that one agent said, while I was handcuffed, ‘Stay here.’ I said, ‘I smoke, I can’t run very far.’ I made a joke. He said, ‘If you run, I’ll shoot you first. . . . I’m tired of chasing you guys, I just shoot now.’ ”

Company accounting manager Mike Zeldis, an orthodox Jew, said the lead agent addressed him by saying, “Hey, rabbi, how’s it going?” after seeing the yarmulke on his head.

“He used a very belligerent tone--it was insulting and embarrassing,” said Zeldis, 52. “I told him I was a religious Jew, not a rabbi. He asked me for identification and asked where I was born. . . . For a moment, I didn’t feel like I was in America, I almost felt like I was in Germany.

“I’m used to insults on the street--it takes all kinds--but not from a government agent. I’d like to see this guy canned, shoveling dirt, but that’s emotional. From a logical point of view, I think the guy needs three months of sensitivity training and a position of less authority.”

Another machine programmer, George Grap, said agents insulted several of his Spanish-speaking colleagues, calling them all “Pedro.”

“I heard them say ‘Pedro,’ like a generic, to a group of Hispanics,” said Grap, a 40-year-old Simi Valley resident. “I know those guys and they weren’t ‘Pedro.’ There’s only one Pedro here. The agents seemed to be enjoying the hell out of themselves.”

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“They were smiling and laughing,” chimed in Wood, saying the lead agent “was a cowboy, just having a good time.”

Added Grap: “I’m a very conservative, redneck Republican who voted for Elton Gallegly. I happen to be in favor of [restrictive] immigration policies. What they did yesterday doesn’t help.”

Christensen, the company’s human resources manager, said the INS first approached Wilwood to check the I9 forms--a document in which new employees provide identification as proof of their legal right to work--of 100 employees in early January. An agent later asked to review the forms for all company employees.

Once all the available documents were provided, Christensen said, one INS agent said he would provide the company with a list of any forms that did not check out so the information could be verified.

The list was never proffered, Christensen contends. Instead, immigration agents, with help from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, blocked the street about 3 p.m. Wednesday and rounded up employees in a small room to check their residency status.

INS official Melville said after beginning its investigation, her agency determined Wilwood had “such a high level of potential violations” that investigators chose to get a warrant to inspect the company unannounced.

She said an initial audit of the employees’ I9 forms indicated as many as 72 workers did not have the necessary documents to make them eligible to work. Company officials say there were only 24 discrepancies in the documents.

Melville would not discuss the results of Wednesday’s raid nor the ongoing investigation.

“We’re not at all close to saying that this case is closed,” she said.

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Folmar is a Times staff writer; Ritsch is a Times Community News reporter.


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