Roundup of illegals shakes up Mendota

Federal action splits families, empties streets; city to consider resolution opposing the raids.

By Vanessa Colon, The Fresno Bee
February 27, 2007


Three weeks after immigration agents swept through town, arresting scores of undocumented immigrants, Mendota officials are considering whether to take a political stance against the nationwide raids.

Although some Mendota officials fear such a stand could jeopardize federal funding of the city's half-built prison and other projects, others say the sweep has devastated the small farming community.

Mendota has been like a ghost town since the sweep, officials said. Residents are afraid to leave their homes to shop or walk their children to school.

"A lot of people are very uncomfortable, especially here in Mendota, where there's a lot of farmworkers. ... Some children have been left behind" when parents were arrested, Mayor Robert Silva said.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation is part of a national effort to reduce illegal immigration.

"ICE does not enact the laws. ICE officers are sworn to enforce the laws," said Lori Haley, a spokeswoman from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Haley said "Operation Return to Sender" targets people with deportation orders issued by a judge, but if agents come in contact with other undocumented immigrants, they also can be deported.

It's unclear how many residents have been arrested -- federal officials declined to provide an exact number. But one Mendota City Council member estimated about 200 people were picked up the week of Feb. 8.

Across the nation, from the San Diego suburb of Escondido to Hazelton, Pa., local governments have tried to crack down on illegal immigrants, penalizing people who rent or provide jobs to undocumented immigrants.

But in Mendota, whose farming economy depends on immigrant labor, undocumented immigrants are a vital part of the community, not a nuisance, city officials say. They work the fields, pay rent and shop in the community's stores.

Silva said the City Council may consider a resolution similar to one San Francisco adopted that condemns the immigration sweeps.

Some Mendota residents want their city to take a stand, Silva said.

City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez said the staff needs to research the legal implications before the City Council can vote on it. Council Member Joseph Riofrio said he expects the resolution to be on the agenda March 13.

Riofrio, who requested the sweeps resolution, also wants the city to declare itself a safe haven for undocumented immigrants. He believes Mendota could be the first city in the Valley to adopt such a resolution. San Francisco has issued a similar declaration.

But he said some council members worry the federal government could make it difficult for the city to obtain money for future projects if a resolution passed. Some Mendota council members declined to comment on any city immigration resolution until they see what is proposed.

Haley said resolutions condemning immigration sweeps won't affect the agency's efforts, however.

Rick Oltman, a spokesman for Californians for Population Stabilization, calls the resolution "bad policy." The nonprofit group in Santa Barbara supports greater enforcement to curb illegal immigration.

"It's unfortunate when elected officials don't support legitimate law enforcement operations. These people have a responsibility. They are spending tax dollars," Oltman said.

Mendota businesses such as Westside Grocery and the Mendota Food Center noticed fewer customers since the sweep. Riofrio said customers are only now starting to return.

"The whole street was desolate. There was no one around," said Riofrio, whose family owns Westside Grocery.

He said the raids just add to the misery already caused by the citrus freeze and last year's shutdown of local manufacturers, such as the De Francesco Sons plant in Firebaugh and Rock-Tenn, the Kerman box-folding plant.

Riofrio said the majority of the people immigration agents are arresting are hardworking people.

"I felt they violated the city. They separated families. ... When the kids see dad and mom being pulled away, it's traumatizing," Riofrio said.

Alicia Chavez of Mendota was left to care for a friend's four children, ages 9 months and 5, 7 and 12 years old.

The children belong to her boyfriend's sister, who was deported three weeks ago. She said the children ask for their mother.

"The 9-month-old cries a lot. He doesn't want to sleep," Chavez said.

Chavez said immigration agents pounded on the door around 5:30 a.m. Once inside, they asked several people, including Chavez, if they were legal residents. Chavez, a U.S. citizen, said the agents arrested seven adults and a 10-year-old girl at the home.

"I think it's unfair. They came looking for someone else," she said.

One Mendota family was left without a father, who was the breadwinner. Feliciana, who declined to give her last name for fear of being deported, said she doesn't know what she is going to do. She takes care of her three daughters, including a 10-month-old with poorly developed lungs who needs frequent medical care.

"I have to ask for help in paying the rent. I feel if I go to Mexico, my daughter will die," Feliciana said in Spanish.

Her husband was arrested by agents in Mendota when he drove by a store to pick up two coworkers around 5 a.m., she said. They were planning to go to work pruning almond trees near Five Points.

She said her husband, calling from a Santa Clara detention center, said about three busloads of workers were picked up in Mendota.

Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, said agents have not raided farms, but he is worried about the ongoing sweeps and the effect on agriculture's labor force.

"We don't need a lot of disruptions right now," he said.

Staff writers Dennis Pollock and Chris Collins contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at vcolon@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6313.

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