Movement presses on in wake of raids, arrests

CHICAGO — Imagine you are at work. You’re on a break getting food from the truck outside, when you are surrounded and arrested by federal agents.

That’s what happened April 19 to 1,187 workers in some 40 towns and cities in 26 states. The workers, many of them Mexican, were employees of IFCO Systems, a company that makes wooden pallets.

The raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents of the Department of Homeland Security were widely seen as a Bush administration move to intimidate the immigrant rights movement.

Flor, a 27-year-old mother of three, was one of those arrested in Chicago. In a telephone interview she told the World of her ordeal.

“It was a typical day. I was working hard like always,” she said. The IFCO workers had been on the job a few hours already when they went on break around 9:15 a.m.

They were eating breakfast from the food truck that pulls up to the factory every morning when suddenly they were surrounded by immigration agents. “There were about 30 of them,” she said. “They were all over, all of a sudden, from everywhere. I did not run because I was afraid they might use their guns. I was still holding my food when they began to ask everyone for identification.”

“‘Who has legal documents to live in the United States?’ they asked us.” Only two of the 28 workers did, Flor said. The remaining 26 were arrested, handcuffed and put in windowless trucks.

“What did we do? Why are you arresting us for being workers?” Flor demanded.

Flor continuously asked the driver where they were going and if she could make a phone call. No answers.

They were taken to some type of “garage,” she said. The men were separated from the women for interrogation. “What’s your name, what’s your parents’ name, what are the names of your children, and where do you live?” they asked her.

After being fingerprinted and photographed, Flor was put into a cell-like room with no windows and a dirty bathroom.

“Then they handcuffed us again, this time putting chains around our feet, and we had to walk to the trucks,” where they were taken to another location about 30 minutes away.

“Everything was dark and I began to feel claustrophobic,” she said.

When they arrived at the second location they were asked the same questions and again put in very cold filthy cells. They were inspected by nurses and vaccinated. Flor thought it was for tuberculosis, but she wasn’t sure.

The following morning Flor was released. Officials told her she would receive “a notice” in the mail.

Flor has a hard time sleeping and eating these days. She suffers from nightmares and is afraid to work.

Nationwide, reaction to the raids was quick, with protests in Chicago, New York, Houston and other cities. The universal opinion was that the arrests were a response to the massive immigrant rights demonstrations, an attempt to intimidate immigrants and their supporters, to appease the ultra-right in the Republican Party and perhaps to stampede employers into lobbying for a guest worker program.

“We have changed the public opinion nationally,” away from the right-wing Republicans, said Emma Lozano, executive director of Pueblo Sin Fronteras and a leader of the immigrant rights movement. The raids, she said, are “trying to spread the fear. It’s like the empire strikes back.”

Pueblo Sin Fronteras is helping the 26 workers arrested here, while preparing for a major immigrant and workers rights rally and march set for May 1.

On April 25, the Chicago City Council took up a resolution denouncing the raids and demanding they be stopped. A moratorium on the raids has broad support nationwide.

At the IFCO plant here, new workers have already been hired to replace the 26 workers arrested. When a reporter approached the loading dock where several workers were on a late afternoon break this week, most were visibly nervous and went inside. But one, who wanted his name withheld, spoke for a few minutes.

The 54-year-old, originally from Mexico, is a father of six, married for 30 years. Hired three days after the raid, he said he heard about the job on the radio.

It’s a nine-hour day making some 300 pallets with a hand drill, he said, adding, “I think they pay us too little, $6.50 an hour.” There is a lot of exploitation of immigrant workers, he said.

Although Flor said she had not attended any previous demonstrations, she declared, “There needs to be a strong voice for how we live, to understand our pain, our struggle. It is not about race.”

She continued, “It hurts that our dreams could be taken away. We cannot be intimidated. You cannot throw us away. We are human beings who deserve respect and dignity. We are here to work. I only work for a better future for my children.

“I have courage,” she said. “I’ll be way in the front marching for my rights on May 1.”

Emile Schepers contributed to this story.