March 14-20, 2007

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By Patricia Lynn Henley

Y'ice' men cometh

Sweeps by Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) teams in San Rafael and Novato March 6 and 7 sparked vigils in Marin County and fearful rumors throughout the North Bay. These are not raids, says ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley, but "targeted enforcement actions" executed under the lightly named Operation Return to Sender. Federal agents are searching for people who have ignored final deportation orders--ICE calls them "immigration fugitives"--but others are also picked up. "If we go to a house looking for one of our targets and identify others who are in this country illegally, they're also subject to arrest," Haley explains. Immigration and Custom Enforcement currently has two teams in the Bay Area with 52 teams nationwide, and expects to have 75 by the end of the year.

Opponents of these targeted enforcement actions call them raids and say they create a climate of fear prompting this nation's estimated 12 million undocumented residents to keep their children home from school and to avoid contact with government officials of any type. The Marin Interfaith Council and the Canal Alliance hold weekday morning vigils to witness additional ICE activities in San Rafael's Canal district. The goal, says the Rev. Carol Hovis of Marin Interfaith Council, is "to continue to stand watch with the neighborhood to decrease the level of fear and to be a public witness to the immigrant community."

Fears and rumors about ICE activities caused a number of Petaluma residents to skip work and keep their children home from school, although ICE had no recent activity in Petaluma. The repercussions of these raids are felt throughout the North Bay, says Ellen LaBruce, executive director of La Luz Center in Sonoma. "People are afraid to leave their homes," she explains. "You have kids who are going to school who may have heard from other folks or witnessed parents being separated from their kids. A six-year-old is not going to understand that they're OK because their parents have legal papers. What they see is families being broken up." The raids drive undocumented residents underground. "They're afraid to be seen," LaBruce adds. "People will only go out and do what they have to do to keep body and soul together, which means decisions are made that keep them more hidden. Someone who may be a victim or a witness of a crime is less likely to come forward. Someone who has a chronic medical condition is less likely to seek treatment until it gets so out of control they have to go to the emergency room."

Changes need to be made, LaBruce asserts. "What we are pressing for is humane reform of U.S. immigration laws by showing the human impact our schizophrenic immigration laws create."

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