PHOENIX, Ariz.--In what immigration authorities called the single largest operation to fight human smuggling in the country, yesterday federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents conducted actions in immigrant neighborhoods in Phoenix and Tuscon, spreading fear and panic among residents.
The enforcement action focused on shuttle services that help smuggle migrants across the border and it came two days after the state legislature approved an unprecedented law that will make the presence of an undocumented person in the state a crime.
“This operation couldn’t come at a worse time,” said Lydia Guzmán, president of Somos America, a civil and human rights advocacy group. “Here in Arizona, our community is under constant threat of being harassed.”
Confusion about the ICE actions was magnified by the fact that on Wednesday, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio announced an upcoming crime suppression sweep. Arpaio is known for immigration raids in Latino neighborhoods and is under investigation for racial profiling.
“The rumors run wild, saying that this was a federal raid that was taking place house by house, store front by store front, and people were afraid to go out,” said Guzmán. “Some of the streets where the operations were taking place looked like a ghost town.”
Salvador Reza, an organizer with Phoenix-based human rights group Puente, said the use of media and display of force surrounding the federal operations were similar to that used in Arpaio’s crime suppression patrols. The raids were announced to select media outlets 48 hours before they were launched.
“This is a political and a criminal raid,” said Reza. “They are intimidating Arizona, and they’re intimidating the rest of the country, too.”
Criticism came from out of state too.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) issued a statement yesterday questioning the timing of the investigation. MALDEF President and General Counsel Thomas A. Saenz said the action will have a chilling effect on a community that is already hesitant to participate in the 2010 Census and has been driven farther into the shadows by Arpaio’s actions.
Homeland Security Assistant Secretary John Morton, who held a press conference in Phoenix, said the operation wasn’t a “federal raid” and denied any connection between the enforcement and Arizona’s current political climate.
“There’s absolutely no truth that this particular investigation or the prosecution was timed on anything other than the merits of a very long criminal investigation,” said Morton.
The investigation that started two years ago extended across the border and targeted shuttle services in the cities of Nogales, Tucson and Phoenix. The companies were accused of providing transportation for human smuggling networks after undocumented immigrants crossed the border evading Border Patrol checkpoints.
“These shuttle companies from their inception were a fraud by organized crime,” said Morton. “We’re trying to take up the entire industry and rip it up by its roots,” he added.
With more than 800 agents, both federal and local, authorities shut down five shuttle companies and arrested 47 people. Seventeen of those arrested were only held for being undocumented immigrants. Morton said some of them were being smuggled into the United States and might be released as witnesses in the case. But it is unclear how many were what ICE calls “collaterals,” or people who are undocumented immigrants living in Arizona whom agents encountered during the operation.
Morton emphasized that the focus was on violent criminal smugglers who have made it a practice to victimize and often hold for ransom the people they smuggle.
Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris said resources were used to arrest “the big fish,” not to go after the immigrant cargo.
Local human rights advocates in Tucson, where a search warrant was executed at a shuttle company, said the display of force was excessive and sent the wrong message to the community that saw local police collaborating with immigration agencies.
“It felt like it was staged for a reality show,” said Jennifer Allen, director of the Border Action Network. “We don’t need to see the show. We just need them to do their job, quietly and safely.”
People on the other side of the immigration debate were skeptical.
“The timing is suspicious,” said Valerie Roller, a member of the group Riders U.S.A. which opposes amnesty for undocumented immigrants. “It’s a good step, but I wonder how much is just to placate people so it looks like they’re doing something.”
The large-scale operation also came on the heels of a call for more border enforcement and complaints about federal inaction after the unsolved violent death last month of rancher Robert Krentz on the Arizona border.
Meanwhile, conservative tea party groups hosted rallies in several cities in Maricopa County yesterday and raised the issues of immigration and border security, with a distinctly anti-immigrant tone.
“This border is not secured and Rob Krentz is dead,” said former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo during a Tempe rally yesterday. He blamed undocumented immigrants for committing murder, and said that “the blood of those people is on the hands of every politician who runs a sanctuary city.”