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Local Police, U.S. Agents Differ on Raids

Times Staff Writers

When U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested more than 400 undocumented immigrants a year ago in controversial Southland sweeps, they said they acted partly in response to tips from local law enforcement agencies.

But hundreds of pages of documents about the raids, released by federal officials in response to a lawsuit from the ACLU, show no specific evidence of such tips, and several police agencies told The Times last week that they did not inform Border Patrol agents of the whereabouts of suspected illegal immigrants before the sweeps.

The documents suggest that the team of a dozen agents may have scoped out the areas on their own, targeting day laborer sites and other locations where large numbers of undocumented immigrants gather.

The Border Patrol agents were not required to consult with local law enforcement officials but insisted they had. They said they had received information from the Riverside and San Bernardino County sheriff’s departments, several city departments and the California Highway Patrol.

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“If they are saying they are acting on intelligence, then they didn’t get it from us,” said Ontario Police Det. Alfredo Parra. “We’ve never done anything like that.... We don’t get involved in their sweeps or activities.”

“We were absolutely not involved,” said William Lansdowne, police chief of San Diego, where some sweeps occurred. “The only time we work with the Border Patrol is if there is a criminal nexus.”

The Escondido Police Department was the only one of seven agencies contacted by The Times not to dispute the Border Patrol’s claims.

“We have an ongoing problem with day workers congregating in specific areas around town,” said Lt. Mark Wrisley. “We pass that information to the Border Patrol all the time.”

The arrests occurred almost exactly a year ago in parts of Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties, including the cities of Corona, Ontario and Escondido.

The sweeps raised protests among politicians, church leaders and the Mexican government because they extended well beyond the border and caused fear in immigrant neighborhoods, even among people in the U.S. legally.

Subsequently, the Department of Homeland Security determined that the agents did not get required approval from headquarters and did not coordinate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency primarily responsible for immigration violations away from the border. Homeland Security officials then clarified that the Border Patrol should concentrate on the border, major transportation hubs and travel routes north.

But Border Patrol officials say the documents released to the ACLU do not tell the entire story.

The agency received intelligence from law enforcement concerning these areas “and we responded accordingly,” said Mario Villarreal, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, a division of Homeland Security. “Our agents went into these areas and made significant arrests.”

Some of the tips may have been confidential or highly sensitive and therefore were not released, he said.

He added that other tips could have been given informally, in person or over the phone.

The documents, sought by the ACLU in a lawsuit alleging possible violation of immigrants’ rights, provide the first detailed look at the arrests.

In memos, e-mails and letters, the Border Patrol agents said they were acting on tips from local police, as well as residents and business owners. One memo said the patrols were in part “a result of information that had been repeatedly received from local law enforcement agencies concerning the presence of suspected undocumented aliens in the area.”

Another memo said some operations were “based on information from the Ontario Police Department regarding the presence of suspected illegal aliens, as well as the [supervisors’] knowledge of the presence of illegal aliens due to past activity and arrests.”

The arrests were conducted by a team of Temecula-based agents called the Mobile Patrol Group that included two supervisors and 10 agents. The specially trained group worked in “highly mobile and unpredictable patterns” to stop terrorists, undocumented immigrants and contraband, according to the documents.

One memo from a supervising agent said, “Intelligence information has also been in the form of personal trips that I have made to the area in which my observations verified information.”

In addition, intelligence reports released by the Border Patrol rely in part on criminal “most wanted” lists gathered from various police agency websites. Those reports also cited a general observation that the development boom in the Inland Empire has drawn undocumented immigrants and smugglers. The reports also mentioned phone calls from citizens thanking agents for combating illegal immigration and instructing them to check out certain areas.

The team arrested about 420 undocumented immigrants, according to the reports. The vast majority were Mexican, and nearly all were men. They were arrested at bus stops, day laborer sites and in cars. About 20 were placed in deportation proceedings, while the rest voluntarily returned to their native countries, according to the documents.

About 45 people were questioned who turned out to be either U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. A similar number had criminal records.

ACLU attorney Ranjana Natarajan said she believes the dozen agents harassed “day laborers and other vulnerable workers” out of frustration over the Inland Empire’s growing immigrant population.

“It looks like it was a bunch of cowboys at the Temecula office who wanted to do more,” she said. “They clearly wanted to do interior enforcement.... They didn’t bother to get any approval.”

Andy Ramirez, chairman of a Chino group called Friends of the Border Patrol, said agents should be allowed to make arrests wherever there are illegal immigrants.

“The Border Patrol should be able to go in and do their job,” Ramirez said. “They are not allowed to do anything other than sit in their car at the border. They are being prohibited from doing their job.”

The sweeps had a profound effect in some areas: Some immigrants said they were scared to go to local markets or schools.

One year later, the fear still lingered at Magnolia Avenue and 6th Street in Corona, one of the sweep sites. On Friday, a group of about a dozen men waited under a shady tree for work. Many of them said they had used that site, a relatively desolate industrial spot, to look for work for years.

The arrests kept them away for a few weeks, but necessity brought them back.

“It’s a little unstable, but the money moves fast,” said Rodrigo Roblero, from Chiapas, Mexico.

Roblero, 28, who was driving by when Border Patrol agents arrived a year ago, said they herded his friends like cattle.

Some immigrants ran. “They hid in the businesses next door,” he said. “Some even hid below the counters.”

Inside El Tapatio, a nearby supermarket, Raquel Torres, 41, shopped for chiles with her 10-year-old child.

“It’s scary,” she said. “You don’t want to go anywhere because you don’t know where they [immigration officials] are going to come out of.”


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