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Immigrants Fearful to Come Forward, Latino Leaders Say

Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- A police decision to hand over two undocumented migrants to immigration authorities this week is silencing potential witnesses in the serial sniper investigation, area Latino leaders said Wednesday.

“It’s a really bad message to send the Latino community and immigrants in general,” said Gustavo Torres, director of a suburban Montgomery County social service agency, CASA of Maryland. “I am not going to encourage my community to [report] those criminals, [if] witnesses are going to be deported.”

The two men--a 24-year-old Mexican and a 35-year-old from Guatemala--were picked up Monday in a case of mistaken identity by police in Richmond, Va. They were in a white van and using a pay phone that the sniper may have used to call police. They now face deportation.

In some California municipalities, law enforcement guidelines would have called for setting the men free after questioning, if it was determined that they were doing nothing wrong. CASA and nine other organizations Wednesday issued a statement calling on police in the Washington area to adopt similar policies.

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More than 430,000 Latinos live in the region. A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that close to 90% are residents of the suburbs, the territory favored by the sniper. Many work in construction and other trades that require an early start to the day, a time period the sniper has sometimes used to stalk victims.

Federal and local officials were scrambling to contain the community relations fallout by reassuring immigrants with potentially useful information that the police are not interested in their visa status.

“I want to personally urge the immigrant community to come forward if they have information that will assist in this investigation,” Immigration and Naturalization Commissioner James Ziglar said in a statement issued Wednesday. “INS will not seek immigration status information provided to local authorities in this effort.”

Ziglar held out the possibility that the INS would help undocumented migrants who assist the police gain legal status, under a federal law that makes special provisions for people who aid crime-fighting efforts.

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But damage already appeared to have been done.

“The fact that the police were blithely mentioning turning those individuals over to INS has sent a chill through the Latino community,” said Cecilia Munoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza and a Montgomery County resident. “Latinos are living with the same fear as everybody else. They need to know that if they see something suspicious, it’s safe to call the police.”

Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose said his department is concerned that immigrants are not talking. “We strongly feel there are witnesses that have not come forward,” he said. “There may be some people [with] some type of immigration status that may be witnesses.”

County Executive Doug Duncan pledged a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. “The message is, you can talk to us, you can help us in the investigation and we’re not going to ask about your immigration status.”

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A spokesman for the Henrico County police in Virginia, where the two Latinos were arrested, was not available for comment. The two men have not been identified by authorities. Torres, the Maryland social service executive, said the 24-year-old Mexican is a carpenter who had lived in the area for some years.

Elsewhere, some police agencies are not obligated to hand over law-abiding undocumented migrants to the INS.

In San Diego, close to the Mexican border, Sgt. David Contreras said his department has a policy that expressly protects immigrants who are crime victims, witnesses or potential witnesses. San Diego police also do not report people cited during routine traffic stops.

“We want to make sure that they trust us and report crimes without being afraid of the police,” Contreras said. “It’s one of the best policies and procedures that we have.”

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Asked about the arrests Monday in Virginia, Contreras said his department would have let the two men go. “They didn’t commit any crime,” Contreras said, “so we would not have called the Border Patrol.”

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Times staff writer Faye Fiore contributed to this report.


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