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3/8 San Rafael, CA: Canal community fearful after immigration raids
Released 12 March 2007  By Jennifer Upshaw - Marin Independent Journal (CA)
3/8 San Rafael, CA: Canal community fearful after immigration raids

Canal community fearful after immigration raids

Jennifer Upshaw
Marin Independent Journal (CA)

Photo: Olivia Beltran addresses San Rafael Police Chief Matt Odetto and Mayor Al Boro during a Pickleweed Advisory Board meeting at Pickleweed Park Community Center on Wednesday. Beltran and Mery Martinez (seated) live in the Canal neighborhood of San Rafael, where immigration raids have area residents worried. (IJ photo/Alan Dep )

It was around 7 a.m. Wednesday when Fernando Quezada first spotted the red Chevrolet Impala with no license plates at the corner of Larkspur and Alto streets in San Rafael's Canal neighborhood.

Snapping pictures of the scene with his digital camera, Quezada, a community leader and local business owner, watched as immigration officials went to work.

"He just walked up to a guy, he didn't ask him any questions, and he pulled him out of his truck and hauled him away," Quezada said.

"He said, 'Are you taking pictures of me?'" Quezada recalled saying to the immigration official. "I said, 'I'm part of the community here and we want to know what's happening. We don't know why you're doing this.' He didn't say anything."

The incident was part of a flurry of reports surrounding a two-day roundup of dozens of Canal area residents by federal Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials.

The raids, and another one in Novato, are part of a stepped-up campaign dubbed Operation Return to Sender to send illegal immigrants home.

"It is complete chaos in the community," said Douglas Mundo, head of the Canal Welcome Center, who said he worked until midnight Tuesday after he said an estimated 40 people were detained. He returned to pay house calls and reopen the center at 5 a.m. Wednesday after just a few hours' sleep.

Many have not left their homes since the raids began, he said. Some are without food. Many that called on the Welcome Center - about 50 by mid-afternoon Wednesday - were crying, Mundo said.

"We feel impotent," Mundo said. "We'd like to do something. What can we do?"

Over at Pickleweed Park Community Center, the halls of the typically bustling neighborhood gathering spot were silent.

"Everyone is so scared," said Jeannette Sotomayor as she staffed the reception desk in the silent lobby. "The center is usually full of people."

An English-as-a-second-language class with 20 students had two participants on Wednesday, she said. One student who takes a computer class at the center has a brother who was taken, she said.

The rack that holds brochures and fliers is normally stocked with leaflets about immigrants' rights. On Wednesday it was close to empty.

Sotomayor is "mad, frustrated, very frustrated, because there isn't anything I can do about it. It's like a feeling like you don't belong anywhere. ... We're not criminals. We're workers."

Children are feeling the pressure as well.

At Kid's Club, an afterschool program run by Catholic Charities CYO's Canal Family Support Program, officials said the kids are spooked, too.

"It's affecting the children a lot," afterschool teacher Maria Stein said. "They don't concentrate as well as they usually do."

"What we are trying not to do is add fuel to the fire," program director Carlos Garcia said. "They are definitely anxious. They have wild imaginations, they probably imagine the worst because of what they see on TV. We just try to keep the kids calm."

At Bahia Vista School, many of the 76 students absent Tuesday returned to the classrooms the next day, leaving only 11 missing, Principal Juan Rodriguez said.

In addition to meeting with the roughly 20 children directly affected by the raids, school representatives and community members were escorting students from their front doors to the classroom, he said.

"We continue to believe school is a safe place for them," he said. "To me it is inhumane that they would disrupt this educational process. It's disturbing their right to get a free and appropriate and safe education."

Also on Wednesday, city officials told residents at a meeting of the Pickleweed Park Advisory Board they and county Supervisor Steve Kinsey planned to meet with ICE officials to air the community's concerns.

Mayor Al Boro told a crowd of about 50 that he understood ICE officials have a job to do, but he disagreed with the methods they've used, such as entering homes early in the morning and creating a climate of community fear.

Many are concerned that Canal residents will mistake federal enforcement officials for local officers, shattering years of trust both sides have worked to establish.

"There is a difference between and ICE officer and a San Rafael police officer," Boro said.

City leaders assured residents they were uninvolved in the federal deportation dragnets. Police do cooperate with ICE officials on gang and white collar crime, city officials said.

"Your police department is not going to be picking people up for immigration status," police Chief Matt Odetto said.

Resident Alberto Martinez said the children were scared and the parents unsure how to comfort them. Concern also was raised about leaving children to fend for themselves if a parent is detained.

"We are here to hear some comments from you to assure us and make them feel safe," he said.

"I just think people will not stop making noise about this. People will be asking tough questions," Pamela Torres said.

She said the community was looking to the city "to have the confidence to say it's OK to our kids. I think you guys should take that responsibility very, very seriously and I know you guys will."

Snatching people off the street with no word on who they are or where they are headed has sent a chill as well, many noted.

"That's called disappearing people and it's a dangerous approach," said longtime Canal resident Dorothy Vesecky, a member of the advisory board. "I'd like to know how many people, their ages and who is gone."

Resident Olivia Beltran called for a list to establish "who was taken and where they were taken."

"At this moment it's calling to their human side," she said of federal officials. Halting a process that made people vanish into thin air is "breaking that cycle of our ancestors," she said.

City leaders said they will seek answers.

"We will find out who the people are and we'll find out what the procedure is to notify the community," Boro said of the missing residents. "We will ask these questions."

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