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California Latinos fearful after immigration raids

Reuters | January 25, 2007
Tim Gaynor

LOS ANGELES - Cook Rosa Maria Salazar's eyes dart anxiously to the door as customers file into the Salvadoran cafe in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles.

"We're terrified. The police could come for us at any time and deport us," she said in Spanish earlier this week as diners fingered maize tortillas stuffed with beans and pork scratchings and chatted softly.

The 55-year-old undocumented worker from Guatemala is among many Hispanics deeply shaken by recent immigration raids at the heart of Latino communities in southern California.

The-seven day Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sweep, dubbed "Operation Return to Sender," targeted jails across five counties in the Los Angeles area, where police took 423 of what they called "criminal aliens" into federal custody for deportation, after being held on charges unrelated to their immigration status.

Federal agents from seven teams also fanned out in local communities, where they nabbed 338 undocumented immigrants, more than 150 of whom were classed as "immigration fugitives" -- foreign nationals who ignored final deportation orders.

The raid was the latest in a series of get-tough enforcement measures by ICE in the United States, but the largest action of its kind in California, where more than a third of the population is Hispanic.

"We hadn't seen anything like this here before, and it came as a shock," said Antonio Bernabe, a community worker who runs a day labor program at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

"The police didn't just take people with deportation orders, they took anybody ... guys who were just hanging out in the street and even from a Jack in the Box restaurant ... and now people are afraid to go out," he added.

RAIDS AS BUSH BACKS OVERHAUL

The high-profile sweep netted mostly Mexican nationals, but included people from 14 countries including Ukraine, Japan, Poland and Trinidad.

It culminated on Tuesday, when President George W. Bush gave a State of the Union address that ranked immigration legislation among his top domestic priorities.

Bush called for "comprehensive immigration reform," combining a guest-worker program with tougher workplace and border enforcement.

He remained vague, however, on the thorny issue of how to deal with the 10 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows, more than 2.5 million of whom live in California.

Some immigrants who followed the speech closely on Spanish-language television in Los Angeles remained hopeful of concessions in the aftermath of the sweep.

"I came here to work and help support my family, so obviously the raids were alarming," Salvadoran construction worker Remberto Flores told Reuters in Spanish as he waited for a bus in a neighborhood of taco stands and wire transfer shops.

"But we saw President Bush talk about reforms in the Senate, so maybe there will be some breaks for us as well," he added.

Others in the city believed that the only clear message from the raids and the speech was that the situation for immigrants in California had changed.

"We used to feel secure here," Nicaraguan electrician Manuel Salomon told Reuters as he sipped coffee in a Mexican bakery in the city. "But it looks like that honeymoon is over."

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