Invaders busted near consulate; Mexican meddlers 'outraged'
Border Patrol arrests family near consulate; complaint filed
By Leonel Sanchez and Sandra Dibble STAFF WRITERS
August 2, 2003
Mexican officials filed a formal complaint with the Border Patrol yesterday after agents arrested a Mexican family on their way to the Mexican consulate in San Diego.
According to the consulate, the five family members were within a block of the consulate about 6:50 a.m. when four Border Patrol agents stopped them. The five were arrested when they couldn't prove they were in the country legally. They were deported to Mexico hours later.
Consulate employees said about 70 Mexicans waiting for the consulate's doors to open scattered when they saw the uniformed agents. Most, including those arrested, had been waiting to apply for a matricula consular, a Mexican government-issued identification card that is popular with undocumented Mexican immigrants.
Mexican officials and immigration experts could not recall U.S. Border Patrol agents making an arrest so close to a Mexican government office. They questioned whether the Border Patrol had changed enforcement strategy or whether it was an isolated incident.
"This was an act of bad faith," said Consul General Rodulfo Figueroa [contact this meddler]. "We feel outraged over the way it was handled. They were hunting them. They were spying on them. We have testimony from two employees. They were sneaking around the corner to see how many people they could get."
Border Patrol officials refused to discuss details of the arrests.
Raleigh Leonard, a Border Patrol spokesman in San Diego, said the incident was being reviewed by the agency's parent agency, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, in Washington, D.C.
Leonard said the charges he heard informally had been exaggerated.
"We don't engage in immigration sweeps or raids or whatever people are referring to them as," he said. "I don't know why they're using such inflammatory language to frighten or intimidate people."
Figueroa did not question the legality of the arrests but said enforcement of immigration laws so close to the Mexican government facility "doesn't allow us to do our jobs."
Each day hundreds of Mexicans, many of them undocumented, visit the consulate building on India Street in Little Italy to get passports and other documents. One of the most popular is the matricula consular, which is accepted as proof of identity by many banks, cities and police departments, including all police departments in San Diego County. Congress is debating whether the matriculas should be so widely recognized.
Normally, the consulate issues 120 to 150 matriculas each day. But yesterday, as word of the arrests spread, only 12 were issued.
Deputy Consul General Javier Díaz met with San Diego Border Patrol Chief William Veal yesterday afternoon. According to consulate spokesman Alberto Lozano, Veal described the arrests as an isolated incident that happened because the agents "realized too late" that they were near the consulate.
Border Patrol agents have increased their presence in San Diego's downtown area in recent years at bus, train and trolley stations, as well as at the airport. Still, fewer than 1,000 of the 88,000 apprehensions made since October have occurred far from the border, Border Patrol spokesman Leonard said.
Jan Bejar, a San Diego immigration lawyer, said immigration agents who aren't posted at checkpoints or the border need probable cause before they detain someone.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that "roving patrols" need specific evidence that someone is illegal, which can't be that the person looks Hispanic, doesn't speak English or refuses to make eye contact, Bejar said.
Agents would have probable cause if someone ran from them or tried to evade them in some other way.
"Hanging out in front of the Mexican consulate isn't enough," Bejar said.
Joe Dassaro, president of the local Border Patrol union, defended the agency's ability to enforce immigration laws outside the consulate.
"Unless the (Mexican consulate) is going to claim eminent domain for the entire block, there is not a legal issue," he said. "Had the agents not acted they would not have been doing their jobs."
The Mexican consulate and Border Patrol agents have a strained relationship, Dassaro said, because their goals are so different.
"The Mexican consulate is here to apply political pressure on the agency and the U.S. government in order to further their goals, and their goals are not consistent with the laws of the United States with respect to Homeland Security," he said.
"I can see how they can perceive this as a slap in the face, but our guys are getting slapped in the face all the time."
Christian Ramirez, director of the American Friends Service Committee, contends that agents routinely patrol Latino neighborhoods looking for illegal immigrants.
"The entire community feels intimidated. It interrupts daily life for everyone," he said.
Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California San Diego, said the arrests reminded him of the "random apprehensions" of illegal immigrants made by the Border Patrol in the 1980s. Such tactics ceased in the 1990s.
"I can't imagine Tom Ridge (secretary of the Department of Homeland Security) would welcome these kinds of cowboy tactics," he said.
The five arrested are Baltazar Bailon Benavides, 53; his wife, Rosa Amelia Casarrubias de los Santos, 40; their two children, Angel Bailon, 22, and Nayeli Bailon, 20; and their cousin, Rodolfo Vargas Díaz, 30.
In an interview after they were deported to Tijuana, they said they went to the consulate to apply for matriculas because they had heard that California might soon allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses and they wanted the consular document for identification purposes.
Bailon and his two children worked as janitors while his wife stayed home to care for the couple's five-year-old daughter, whom they had left with friends yesterday morning.
Vargas, who worked as a cook in Mira Mesa, left behind his two-year-old son.
The family's primary concern was getting back to their jobs in San Diego.
"We have three days until Monday, and if we don't show up we lose our jobs. It's that simple," said Baltazar Bailon.
The family said it's difficult to earn a living in the neighborhood outside Acapulco where they came from. Rodolfo Vargas Díaz said that back home he earned about $60 a week in an ice factory; in San Diego he earned nearly 10 times as much. h