Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Review finds effective post-Sept. 11 tactics

Though some South Florida immigrants are worried by what they perceive as new enforcement tactics, a Herald review suggests a more systematic use of older methods.

By JACQUELINE CHARLES AND ALFONSO CHARDY

Miami Herald


Anxiety has been on the rise in South Florida immigrant communities over the past few months about what many immigrants and their advocates perceive as more aggressive government tactics against those in the U.S. illegally.

According to some, law enforcement officers have started stopping people at random and arresting them if they have no immigration papers -- on buses, trains and roads. But immigration officials insist they are not doing anything significantly different than they have been doing since the 9/11 terrorism attacks, when scrutiny of foreigners increased.

A Herald review shows no significant new enforcement in the past few months. But tactics that went into effect after the attacks -- between late 2001 and throughout 2002 and 2003 -- have become systematic and more effective, making them more evident:

• U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are more systematically tracking down foreign nationals who allegedly have gone into hiding after immigration judges order their deportation.

• Border Patrol officers have arrested more undocumented migrants in periodic operations on interstate buses and trains and airport terminals -- though overall fewer migrants have been arrested by Border Patrol agents in the Miami sector in recent years.

• Local police officers are more frequently summoning immigration agents when a driver's name pops up on a computer list of foreign nationals wanted by immigration for evading deportation orders -- the so-called absconders.

Merline Michel said her husband, Rony Francois, was on his way to church this past Christmas Eve in Miami when he was taken into immigration custody after police stopped him for allegedly driving with illegal tinted windows.

''He was deported to Haiti on Thursday with no warning,'' said Michel, who finally heard from Francois on Saturday when he called asking her to send him clothes and money. ``I think anybody can be stopped, whether you are walking or standing at a bus stop. I understand people come here illegally to have a better life but the way they are doing things is wrong.''

Michel, who is a legal U.S. resident, said she doesn't know if her husband, who drove interstate buses, had a final deportation order against him.

Far from being new, the use of routine traffic stops to detect deportable migrants who allegedly have gone underground after being advised of an expulsion order is the oldest post-9/11 tactic being employed.

There are no figures to quantify whether immigration-related police arrests during traffic stops are higher now than before, but immigration officials say there has been a 200 percent increase from 2003 to 2004 in the number of alleged foreign absconders located since absconder names were added to the computerized wanted list.

The list is part of the National Crime Information Center, a database police officers often check when they verify a driver's name and background in a traffic stop.

In all, officials plan to add more than 400,000 names of absconders. So far, 159,480 names have been added since the initiative began in late 2001, according to Manny Van Pelt, an ICE spokesman in Washington.

Absconders are a prime target of federal agents under a National Fugitive Operations Program, an initiative launched by ICE on Feb. 25, 2002.

The search for absconders is fueling perceptions by some Haitian Americans and activists that the community is being targeted, as local Creole-language radio hosts field calls from worried listeners.

Jeanine Jolicoeur, a naturalized U.S. citizen, said she was awaiting a Miami-Dade bus at 8 a.m. one December morning on Northwest 47th Avenue and 183rd Street in northwest Miami-Dade County when she was approached by three immigration agents in regular clothing, demanding to see her immigration papers.

''They asked me if I am Haitian. I said `Yes I am Haitian,'' said Jolicoeur, who noted she was asked to show her immigration papers. ``They said if I didn't show my ID, they would arrest me and put me in Krome.

She eventually showed them her voter registration card and her driver's license, she said.

'They made a call on the telepone and then they said, `You are free to go,' '' said Jolicoeur, who believes she was singled out because she is Haitian. ``That is discrimination. They don't want to see Haitians.''

But drawing even more attention than the fugitive initiative or the traffic stops is the Border Patrol's boardings of long distance buses and trains to check papers of traveling foreign nationals.

The so-called ''transportation hub'' operations are perhaps the most visible activity.

In these operations, Border Patrol officers board Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains and ask foreign travelers to produce papers.

A video of one of the bus operations shows uniformed Border Patrol officers leafing through the passports of passengers.

Victor Colón, assistant chief patrol agent for the U.S. Border Patrol Miami Sector, would not release specific figures on arrests in bus and train operations. But he said ''transportation checks'' arrests have increased between between fiscal years 2003 and 2004.

However, Colón pointed out that overall the total number of arrests of undocumented migrants by the Border Patrol in the Miami sector had decreased between the same fiscal years -- dropping about 25 percent to about 4,000. One chief reason, Colón said, is improved coordination among Homeland Security agencies, which has deterred more migrants from attempting illegal trips.

Beyond these operations, there is no evidence of widespread targeting of illegal migrants.

Police officials from Homestead to Palm Beach county said it is their policy not to bother migrant workers unless they commit a crime.

Migrants themselves who gather in clusters to await employers at certain street corners in Homestead or Pompano Beach say they have not been approached by immigration officers.

One recent police action involving migrant workers occurred in January in Lake Worth, Palm Beach County.

Police officers handed out letters warning drivers who stopped on certain downtown streets to pick up migrant workers that they could be fined up to $500 for hiring people not authorized to work.

Sgt. Dan Boland, a Lake Worth police spokesman, said his department was not targeting migrant workers but drivers who blocked traffic and created a hazard.

Boland said that since the letters were handed out in late January the traffic problem vanished -- and the migrant workers are still there.
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