Thursday, May 10, 2001
Girls, Uninterrupted: Complaints by schoolgirls about men loitering in front of Mendoza''s Family Games prompted an April 6 INS raid that''s raised questions.
These days, the sidewalk outside Mendoza''s Family Games in the heart of Greenfield is near empty at noon. Several middle-aged Latino men in sombreros lean against a green Toyota truck on the quiet main street awash in sunlight, and Mexican ranchero music spills into the street from passing pickups. Inside the modest game room, adolescents empty their pockets into video games and young kids patiently wait at the ice cream bar.
Directly across the street sits the small pink building that is home to both Greenfield''s city hall and its bite-sized police department. Each time one of Greenfield''s 15 police officers leaves the building on a routine traffic call or to attend to a domestic dispute, the patrol car passes right by Mendoza''s Family Games.
On the evening of April 6, this corner shared by the game room and the police station was the site of an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) raid that sent 39 undocumented immigrants back to their native Mexico just as the broccoli and lettuce harvest seasons got rolling. The official justification for the raid was that Spanish-speaking immigrants had been verbally harassing young school girls there.
While the consensus in this small rural community is that child safety comes first, the raid--which targeted farmworkers from the small Triqui indigenous group of southern Mexico--brought to a head issues of racial targeting and the importance of separating immigration enforcement from local policing. The ensuing outcry by immigrant rights advocates and local residents resulted in action last week, when the Greenfield City Council passed a resolution requesting the INS to refrain from deporting illegal immigrants without probable cause. The resolution''s passage met with a standing ovation from the crowd.
According to Paul Johnston, executive director of the Central Coast Citizenship Project, the debate is not over whether action should have been taken to ensure the children''s safety but rather how it was taken and by whom. Though the Greenfield Police Department sits squarely across the street from the scene of the alleged harassment, it was a federal agency that acted, and the consequences for the accused were severe.
"Local police should handle the enforcement of state and local laws. If there''s a serious crime, then the INS is notified to come in," posits Johnston. "It''s really not the INS'' role to enforce local laws."
According to Greenfield Police Chief Ray Sands, his department failed to curb the alleged abuse in its backyard because it had received no criminal complaints. "Only a nuisance was what was reported to us," explains Sands. "If we''d gotten a complaint that someone was grabbing a little kid, we''d have been over there in a heartbeat. [The men have] become part of the landscape. We get very few calls for service there--it''s not a problem."
Perhaps what most angers critics was the way in which the INS was drawn to the scene. The ball got rolling when D.A.R.E. officer and Monterey County Sheriff Deputy Karen Gentile fielded complaints from students at Greenfield Elementary about sexually suggestive behavior from men outside the game room. Gentile then informally passed on the information to an INS acquaintance, then filed a written statement, which, along with a handful of similar complaints from community members, convinced the INS to set up surveillance at the site after a routine courtesy call to Chief Sands.
After two days of undercover observation, INS was ostensibly able to determine what the Greenfield Police Department had been unable to from its vantage point across the street: Men standing on the sidewalk were posing a safety threat to the community. Enough of a threat, it appears, to warrant a full-scale raid manned by 14 INS agents with back-up from Monterey County Sheriff Deputy Louis Parker.
Sheriffs'' Department spokesperson Deputy Bill Cassara says "the information passed informally from the D.A.R.E. officer to the INS, which is often how intelligence is shared in law enforcement. But first and foremost, the deputy responded to legitimate complaints from children and young women--let''s not lose that perspective."
But Johnston cautions against letting that perspective turn into a familiar fervor to protect "our girls" from dark-skinned outsiders. And there''s another thing about the raid that concerns Johnston: He believes it violated local INS policy of focussing on the deportation of "criminal aliens" charged with serious crimes rather than sweep raids that target immigrants solely for their undocumented status.
INS spokesperson Sharon Rummery acknowledges that the 39 immigrants in question were not criminal aliens, but she asserts that "just because our prime objective is to arrest and remove convicted felons doesn''t mean that others who are not convicted felons are not removable.
"We feel that the action on April 6 falls within the spirit of our mission because the behavior we observed posed a threat or possible danger," she says. "We want to make the community a safe place for you for me, for our children and our parents."
But in the conflict-laden aftermath of the raid (which is now under investigation by the INS), concerned activists and citizens began throwing around the idea of safeguarding Greenfield in a different sort of way: protecting the community against further INS raids. With the passage of last week''s resolution, Greenfield joins the ranks of other jurisdictions including San Francisco, Sonoma County, Watsonville and Austin, Texas, that have made a motion to protect their immigrant residents from undue threat of deportation and harassment.
"When you have the Sheriffs Department calling in the INS to handle a routine local law enforcement issue, you create a situation where thousands and thousands of people will no longer be able to go to the police and receive equal protection under law," says Johnston. "The Sheriffs Department has compromised law enforcement''s ability in Monterey County to serve the immigrant community."