02:37 PM PST on Thursday, January 1, 2009
Activists gathered in San Bernardino on Wednesday to protest what they called a series of raids by immigration enforcement officials that targeted day laborers over Christmastime.
Officials for the U.S. Border Patrol confirmed that agents made six arrests during the three-day period of Dec. 23-25 in San Bernardino at Lincoln Drive and 21st Street, which is a site where crowds of day laborers congregate across the street from a Home Depot store.
Activists said they were concerned that the location was targeted for three days straight by an agency that had wandered far inland from its central mission of patrolling the border.
"You are separating families on the most holy day of the year," said Suzanne Foster, executive director of the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center, the day-laborer advocacy group that organized Wednesday's protest.
A spokesman for the Border Patrol said the arrests were not made during raids and that no specific location was being targeted.
"This was part of the daily duties of agents," said Agent Richard Velez, a Border Patrol spokesman based in El Centro.
Agents based in the department's Riverside office made the arrests, he said.
"We perform our duties 24/7. We don't rest on holidays," Velez said. "Bottom line is we are tasked by Congress to enforce the immigration laws of this country."
That mission is not confined to the border, Velez said. Velez said that the agency has had an office in Riverside County since 1967. Although the focus is the border, "we have authority throughout the United States," he said.
Velez said that the whereabouts or identities of the six detainees were not immediately available. He said they have probably been returned to their home countries.
Foster said that in her 10 years as an organizer she has never before heard of the agency patrolling so aggressively so far from the border. She said that though officials were calling the arrest routine and not part of a raid, the effects on the day laborer community and their families was, nonetheless, the same: fear and panic.
"It's the same result," she said. "I think it's rare for them to work so far inland. I'm concerned by their intentions. Is this something they plan to keep on doing?"
Foster was joined Wednesday by dozens of protesters, many of them day laborers who wait for work near the corner where the arrests took place. Several community and labor leaders also took part.
Natalie Marina Alvarez, a member of the Centro Cristiano Agape Church in Rialto, said she was holding a prayer circle among the day laborers on Dec. 24 when Border Patrol agents arrived. She claimed that one agent sarcastically thanked her for making his job easier by gathering the workers.
Emilio Amaya, executive director of the San Bernardino Community Service Center, an immigrant advocacy nonprofit, spoke at Wednesday's gathering and said Border Patrol agents have been checking the immigration status of Hispanics at the San Bernardino Greyhound station and accused the agency of racial profiling.
Velez confirmed that the agency does patrol the bus station but denied that any group was being unfairly singled out.
Carol Jones, a manager at a gas station near the protest, said she saw arrests on two of the days. One of the people detained, she said, was an uncle of a clerk at the gas station.
Jones said the man's concerned family was "waiting for him the whole night," before receiving his phone call from Mexico.
Reach Zeke Minaya at 951-368-9539 or zminaya@PE.com