INS Commissioner Doris Meissner boarded a plane to Mexico last April to personally deliver a message: There would be no mass deportations or roundups back in the United States. Addressing reporters who gathered to hear what assurances she had given a group of high-ranking Mexican government officials, Meissner emphasized, “We want to make sure immigration is not a source of unnecessary tensions between our two nations.”

One year after she made that pledge, a series of raids in Los Angeles’ garment district and the deportation of hundreds of garment workers have left Mexican officials and immigrant-rights activists questioning Meissner’s word.

The government action began late last month, when officials with the Immigration and Naturalization Service received information from the federal Department of Labor — and at least one other agency — that led them to focus on a specific group of garment shops. By March 25, the INS had launched “Operation Buttonhole.”

During a typical raid, INS agents wearing dark jackets emblazoned “Federal Police” seal off the exits as a single agent enters the workshop and announces, “Turn off your machines and take out your cards.” As depicted in footage shot by the INS and distributed to the media last week, workers are interviewed on the spot by uniformed and plainclothes agents; those who cannot produce proof of legal residency have their hands bound behind their backs and are herded onto hulking gray buses for transport to the INS station downtown, and thence to the border.

The INS footage shows docile workers patiently awaiting interviews as officials review their documents. Not all cases go so smoothly, however: During an April 15 raid on P.K. Fashions at 728 Hill Street, Mexican immigrant Miguel Angel Garcia-Serrano was so fearful of arrest that he jumped from a 10th-story window to the roof of an eight-story building next door. Garcia-Serrano sustained fractures to his left arm, elbow and wrist, and was hospitalized at County USC Medical Center. He remains there in custody of the INS.

Over the past three weeks, the INS has staged such raids at more than 75 garment-related businesses downtown, with a combined work force of more than 7,000 employees. Agency officials say more than one-third of those workers have “potential problems” with their work papers. Aggregate figures were not made available, but in the first week of the program 207 undocumented workers were arrested and deported, according to INS District Chief George Guzman. Last Monday, 75 more garment workers were detained at one site alone — Harkham Industries on South Crocker Street. Most of them were deported, most within hours of the raids.

While the INS admits the operation is the “largest of its kind” for the garment industry, agency officials say the raids do not contradict Meissner’s commitment to avoid mass deportations. “The commissioner’s remarks that we would not engage in roundups should in no way be construed as saying we wouldn’t enforce the laws of this country,” said Russ Bergeron, a spokes-man for the INS in Washington, D.C.

Operation Buttonhole drew sharp response last week from Mexican Consul General Jose Angel Pescador in Los Angeles, who dispatched two letters to INS officials expressing concern about the physical and emotional costs of the raids. “We understand many of [these workers] might not have been told they had the right to call their embassy,” Pescador said in an interview. “And there are also concerns about the type of fears these raids are creating.”

“Everybody is scared now,” echoed Cristina Vazques of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). “A lot of the workers in the garment industry are in a situation where they are waiting to resolve their immigration status, and so now, when they go to work, they are scared.”

INS officials acknowledged that nearly all of those picked up during the raids were sent back home within hours of being arrested. Detainees are given a choice of either remaining in the U.S. to appeal their arrests, or opting for “voluntary removal” — they are simply shipped out with no official record of their illegal visit. Under harsh new provisions of the 1996 immigration reform law, undocumented immigrants who are formally deported are banned from re-entering the U.S. for up to 10 years.

The Department of Labor’s role in the raids is also drawing fire. Critics say that playing tipster to the INS could cripple the DOL’s ability to enforce work standards in an industry notorious for sweatshops and child-labor practices. “Workers in industries like the garment industry won’t complain about workplace violations if it gets out that the DOL and the INS are working together,” said UNITE’s Vazques. “More important, this will probably get to the ears of manufacturers and contractors who will use it to scare and threaten workers.”

Department of Labor officials respond that they are required by law to provide the INS with a report every time they investigate an employer for wage or overtime violations. While such a report doesn’t include the immigration status or names of the employees, it does include information on whether the employer has verified that the employees are eligible to work in the U.S. Employers are required by law to fill out a form stating they’ve verified an applicant’s status by checking, among other documents, a green card. “We aren’t turning names or addresses over to the INS,” said DOL spokesperson Deanne Amaden. “The bottom line is we are required by law to turn over this information.”

Unlike the feds, state labor officials avoid any association with the INS when regulating industries with a large immigrant work force. “We don’t cooperate with the INS because it would make it difficult to enforce the laws and get workers to testify against employers,” said Rick Rice of the state Department of Labor Standards Enforcement. “And we need their testimony to enforce the laws.”

In the meantime, INS officials are busily enforcing the law against undocumented immigrants. Investigations of employers who broke the law by hiring them won’t be complete until sometime this summer, according to Guzman. If they are found guilty, they face fines from as little as $250 up to $10,000.

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