Federal immigration officials who launched a big enforcement operation this week in Northern California objected to the actions being labeled sweeps or raids, saying the government went after specific people and does not “target aliens indiscriminately.”
But a construction worker from the Central Valley told a different story about the four-day operation that was designed to counter California’s sanctuary policies and netted 232 undocumented immigrants.
Miguel Botello, 37, said he and three colleagues were stopped Sunday outside a convenience store in Atwater (Merced County) by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers who asked to see proof of legal status, in what he called an instance of racial profiling.
The other three men were arrested, he said, and two have already been deported to Mexico.
“They were not looking for any of us — they only stopped us because we are Mexican,” Botello said Friday in a telephone interview, through a Spanish interpreter. “There were other people arriving that weren’t Mexican, and (the officers) were not asking them anything. What else am I left to conclude?”
Asked about the incident at a Circle K off Highway 99, ICE officials provided a statement that did not address Botello’s allegations specifically, but said the agency does not use racial profiling.
It’s not clear if any of the men might have been a target of the operation spotted at the store by the officers.
“During targeted enforcement operations, ICE officers frequently encounter other aliens illegally present in the United States. These aliens are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and, when appropriate, they are arrested by ICE officers,” the statement said. “ICE does NOT target individuals based on religion, ethnicity, gender or race. Any suggestion to the contrary is patently false.”
ICE had arrest warrants for many people who were detained in the operation. Officials said roughly half had previous criminal convictions.
Immigrants who are not targeted in advance by ICE agents but are discovered and picked up during enforcement actions, sometimes in homes or workplaces, are known as “collateral arrests.” But Botello described a more random scenario.
At around 8 a.m., he said, he and his three colleagues parked outside the Circle K so they could grab coffee and juice before work. Once inside, Botello said he noticed a group of men wearing bulletproof vests and carrying pistols. He figured they were police officers.
But when he and his colleagues walked back outside, they realized the officers were from ICE. It was the first day of the Northern California operation called Keep Safe.
“Come over here,” one of the officers said in Spanish, according to Botello. “Do you have permission to be here?”
Botello said the men were asked for their wallets, prompting one to admit to being undocumented. He said that as his own wallet was searched, an officer asked him if he had permission to be in the country. He responded that he did — that he has a green card.
He recalled the officer saying, “I don’t see any evidence of that,” before Botello told him to keep looking. Finding the residency card, the officer said, “This is fake,” before laughing and later saying the papers were in order, Botello said.
His colleagues, though, were told they did not have permission to be in the country. Botello said they were fingerprinted with a mobile scanner, handcuffed and taken away. Later, he said, one of the officers told him ICE hadn’t been looking for the men, but that it wasn’t their “lucky day.”
Immigrant advocates in the Central Valley said they were disturbed by the account.
“We are both angry and heartbroken for the individuals and families torn apart from ICE’s clear case of racial profiling outside of Circle K,” said Pastor Trena Turner, executive director of Faith in the Valley, a large nonprofit community group. “We also see what transpired at Circle K as only a snapshot of what ICE did across our entire valley this past week: profiling, intimidating and terrorizing our communities.”
Zach Nightingale, an attorney at the San Francisco immigration law firm of Van Der Hout, Brigagliano and Nightingale, said ICE officers do not have the right to check individuals’ residency status without cause.
“You can’t stop someone and randomly ask them for status. You have to have a reasonable suspicion,” said Nightingale, who is not involved in the Atwater case. “Ethnicity and appearance is not alone a legitimate basis.”
After his colleagues were driven away, Botello was allowed to leave. He said he went directly to the Atwater home of one of the men who was arrested — 36-year-old Joaquin Delapaz Alvarez — to find his wife, Leticia.
“What happened? Did you guys forget something?” she asked. She had called her husband that morning after hearing reports of ICE activity in the area, but he didn’t pick up his phone.
“They took him from me,” Botello told her.
The couple have three children. Later that morning, Leticia Delapaz said, her husband called her and in a brief conversation said, “Take care of yourself. Take care of my kids. I love you.”
He told her that though he didn’t have a criminal record, he signed a form expediting his removal from the country. She said ICE told him that if he didn’t sign, he could be detained for months.
On Friday, Leticia Delapaz, who also spoke through an interpreter in a telephone interview, said she plans to move her family to Mexico to join her husband.
“I don’t see a future anymore,” she said. “I just have to figure out how to keep my family together and find happiness.”
Her oldest son, who is 15, created a GoFundMe page, hoping to raise money for the move south. He wrote of his father, “He has never been in trouble with the law in his life, he was an outstanding citizen, and this unjust act has left my family devastated.”
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