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Five Georgians say they were caught up in raids for illegal immigrants.

Times Staff Writer

A civil rights group sued the federal government Wednesday on behalf of five Latino U.S. citizens who say they were detained and harassed by agents carrying out raids targeting illegal immigrants in south Georgia.

The Southern Poverty Law Center said that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents used “Gestapo-like” tactics as they fanned across three Georgia counties in September, breaking into homes and stopping people in their cars “because they looked ‘Mexican.’ ”

The class-action suit seeks not only compensatory damages for the plaintiffs -- who include a landlord whose property was damaged -- but also a court order preventing the agency from conducting similar raids across the country.

“This was a widespread sweep, based largely on racial and ethnic profiling, in violation of the 4th and 5th Amendments to the United States Constitution,” Mary Bauer, attorney for the plaintiffs, said at a news conference here. Those amendments pertain to the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure and the right to due process.

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“Agents saw brown skin,” Bauer said, “and made a presumption of illegality.”

Marc Raimondi, an ICE spokesman, said the raids were conducted legally. “We don’t conduct random sweeps,” he said, noting that the agency had spent a month investigating the area and had compiled a targeted list of illegal immigrants who had worked at a poultry plant using fraudulent documents. “Race or ethnicity played no role,” he said.

Federal agents searching for undocumented immigrants who worked at the Crider Corp. poultry plant in Stillmore, Ga., arrested more than 125 people in September. No U.S. citizens were arrested, but the suit claims that agents “trampled on” the constitutional rights of “every person of Hispanic descent unfortunate enough to get in the way.”

Marie Justeen Mancha -- a 15-year-old who was born in Texas and lives in Reidsville, Ga. -- says she was in her bedroom getting dressed for school when she heard men inside her home yelling “illegals” and “Mexicans.” In the living room, she says, she saw five men, one with his hand on his gun holster.

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“My heart just dropped,” she said.

Nearly two dozen armed agents roamed her house and yard without presenting a search warrant, the lawsuit said. Mancha’s mother, Maria Christina Martinez, is a U.S. citizen who previously worked at the chicken plant.

According to the suit filed in federal court in Atlanta, agents stopped one plaintiff, Maria Margarita Morales, as she was driving home, repeatedly called her “Mexican,” grabbed her arm and ordered her to get out of her vehicle. Agents also surrounded another plaintiff, Ranulfo Perez, outside his home, the suit said, grabbing him by the shirt, pressing a gun into his side and throwing him against his truck. Another plaintiff, Gladis Alicia Espitia, says agents broke down her front door and threatened to throw gas into her home if her family did not come out of a bedroom.

Georgia has the nation’s fastest-growing population of illegal immigrants. According to the federal government, the number of undocumented immigrants in the state more than doubled, to 470,000 from 220,000, in the last five years. ICE’s Atlanta office -- which covers Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina -- arrested 4,633 suspected illegal immigrants in 2006, more than any previous year.

Bauer said the Southern Poverty Law Center filed the suit -- which lists Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, six ICE administrators and 30 unnamed ICE agents as defendants -- to warn federal agents against conducting similar raids.

“If immigration is a problem, this isn’t the solution,” she said. “We want to send out a strong message that if they do this in other communities, they are going to be sued.”

jenny.jarvie@latimes.com


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