Unfriendly Skies

Blas Salinas arrived at LAX’s domestic Terminal 1 late last month, anticipating long lines and delays but never imagining his trip might cost him the right to remain in the United States.

Salinas, a native of Honduras, was stopped three times by Immigration and Naturalization Service agents and finally arrested as he attempted to check in at Southwest Airlines for his return flight home to North Carolina. ”The first time they asked me for my papers, I took out my work permit and explained to them that it had expired, but I had already applied for the extension and was waiting for them [the INS] to send it to me,“ said Salinas, in a telephone interview from his home. ”The second time, I told the agents the same thing, but they took the work permit and said it was no good. There was a television crew filming, and thanks to them [the agents] didn‘t take it but told me it was a problem.“

He was not as lucky when the same agents stopped him a third time. ”When they came back the television crew was gone, and they seemed really rushed to arrest me. They just said to hurry up,“ he said.

Salinas was arrested along with 50 others and taken to INS’s downtown detention center.

Salinas‘ case is raising concern among local immigrant-rights groups and civil rights attorneys who say the INS raids underscore immigrants’ fears that the war on terrorism unfairly targets them. ”We seem to be entering a new phase where people‘s rights are being trampled upon in the name of national security,“ says Luis Carillo, an immigration attorney who works with the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles.

Carillo, who learned of Salinas’ case from a local Spanish-language newscast, called INS officials and eventually helped win his release after the agency determined he was legally in the United States. Salinas moved to the United States nine years ago and qualified for temporary protective status given to many Central Americans who fled their war-torn countries during the 1980s and early 1990s. Their cases have never been formally resolved; instead, many remain in immigration limbo and are forced to reapply for work-permit extensions.

INS officials in Los Angeles said the raids are part of an ongoing campaign against people smuggling illegal immigrants. ”The only thing I can tell you is that it is up to each individual to carry the appropriate documentation,“ said Francisco Aracauti, an agency spokesman. ”We don‘t just do these raids willy-nilly. These operations are planned months in advance after we’ve received information and credible reports.“ He would not comment on the Salinas case.

The raids, which drew protests when they started this spring, provoke accusations of racial profiling. Local groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), say the INS cites questionable reasons for singling people out for interviews. ”We are concerned about the criteria they use to stop someone, such as nervousness or tickets purchased in sequence,“ said attorney Belinda Escobosa. ”Frankly, I think that after 911 we are all a little nervous at airports, and that isn‘t a realistic reason.“

The INS denies this, though the numbers are lopsided. Of 329 people detained since the raids began in March, 321 are Mexican citizens, INS officials said.

For immigrant-advocates, the raids come at a bad time. ”The raids have only heightened the fear and rumors that were generated after September 11th that immigrants are now being targeted,“ said Bibiana Panting, Honduras’ consul general in Los Angeles who worked on Salinas‘ release. ”People don’t realize who is making the arrest at the airport, just that people are being picked up. We now get calls asking us what we should do if a police officer stops us and asks for our immigration papers.“

Los Angeles police are prohibited from asking anyone about their immigration status by Special Order 40, a city ordinance that bans police from acting as immigration officials.

But that could change if U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft gets his way. His office recently proposed allowing local law-enforcement groups to stop immigrants and question them about their status. The memo is getting a cold reception from dozens of police departments across the country and officials who say it will hamper their ability to get immigrants to report crimes or testify.

Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo spoke out against the proposal, saying it will only make life more difficult for a police department already battling an image problem. ”The LAPD will be unable to foster the cooperation necessary from immigrant communities in Los Angeles if officers are checking the immigration status of witnesses, their families and their friends,“ said Delgadillo in a May 29 letter to President Bush. ”Moreover, LAPD officers and detectives are not trained in immigration law or enforcement.“

Some groups, including MALDEF and the Coalition for Police Accountability, have asked the Police Commission to strengthen Special Order 40. Said Escobosa: ”What we would like to see are things like more concrete procedures, more training for police.“

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