Rebecca McDonough was at home with her baby on the morning of Feb. 24 when she got a telephone call that turned her life upside down.
It was her boyfriend Julio Velasquez calling from his workplace, a Bellingham plant where he has helped re-manufacture car engines for a year and a half. "Becca, immigration is here," he said. Then his co-worker and the couple's roommate, Jose Bermudez, took the phone.
"You need to bring some type of documentation saying that says he can stay here," Bermudez told her, "because they're taking everybody that doesn't have documentation."
Retelling those moments, McDonough's voice cracks. She called one of the friends who Velasquez came with from Mexico five years ago who is now a legal resident. He took a written statement down to the plant attesting that Velasquez was seeking residency as well, but was turned away by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, more than 70 of whom, clad in riot gear, had Yamato Engine Specialists surrounded.
They lined people up in a lunchroom, Bermudez says, where the plant's 125 workers had been called to gather around 9 a.m. Though he was born and raised in Medford, Ore., Bermudez had to show his identification and get tagged with a blue wristband -- for "all clear," he says -- to go back to the factory floor. Before he did, he stepped outside to make a phone call.
That's when he saw ICE agents handcuffing and putting leg chains on several of his co-workers, who were then put on a charter-size bus that would take away a total of 25 Hispanic men that day, including
Velasquez and another roommate of Bermudez's. Three women who had children to care for were brought back from the bus and released, sobbing and shaking.
"It came to me as a shock," Bermudez says, "because there were a lot of people I know who worked there for so long." They're all family people, he says, who work hard and have never done anything wrong -- except, he says, use fake names to work in the United States.
But that, immigrants rights activists say, isn't the fault of the workers. With no jobs in their own countries and no route to legality in the U.S., they are desperate. Most companies hire them, says a Yamato co-owner -- herself a U.S. citizen originally from Uganda -- not because they're trying to cheat but because they have no reliable way to check who's entitled to work in the U.S.
"On three occasions, we were told we were in compliance, but [ICE is] not telling that to the public," says Shirin Dhanani Makalai, the personnel manager for family-owned Yamato.
At a Seattle news conference held one day after the raid, immigrant rights activists with OneAmerica and other groups called for immigration reform that would give America's 12 million illegal workers a path to citizenship. Subjecting both U.S. and foreign-born workers to military-style raids, the activists said, trashes civil rights and rips apart families, businesses, and communities.
"This is a pathetic excuse for intelligent public policy," immigration attorney Steve Miller said -- and an unfortunate relic of the Bush Administration, said Pramila Jayapal, director of Seattle's OneAmerica. During his campaign, she said, President Barack Obama promised a moratorium on ICE raids. This was the first under his administration.
After immigrant groups renewed pleas for a moratorium last week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called for an investigation of the raid, which she told members of a House panel that she had not known about beforehand. In a statement released last week, ICE press secretary Kelly Nantel says the agency was acting on a tip it received about the plant from two gang members it had arrested.
ICE conducted the raid to apprehend the illegal workers it discovered, the statement says, and "to further determine potential criminal activity."
On Feb. 28, ICE deported two Yamato workers who had existing removal orders, says Rosalinda Guillen, a Latino rights activist with Bellingham's Community to Community Development. Another was released for medical reasons, and the rest remain in limbo at Tacoma's Northwest Detention Center, where they could spend weeks or months waiting for or fighting deportation -- if they have money or can get a free lawyer.
It's a tragedy for the workers and the business, Makalai says, that Yamato was helpless to avoid. She can't ask for documents until after hiring workers and she can't avoid hiring people of color -- that would be discrimination, she says. Once new hires fill out the required I-9 form, which requires showing the employer a Social Security card and U.S. passport or driver's license, Makalai says her staff then call Social Security or use its online verification system to check the number.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, Makalai says. In 2005, ICE conducted an audit of Yamato's I-9 forms and came up with three suspect workers that it later cleared -- and who were then taken away on Feb. 25, she says. In August, ICE asked to review her I-9 forms again. An agent later told her there were workers ICE needed to talk to, but not who or how many.
As the economy deteriorated last fall and engine sales stalled, Makalai says she had to make two rounds of layoffs -- information she shared in advance with her local ICE agent. He told her agents might come before Christmas, but she never imagined the armed encampment she witnessed Feb. 25.
"Every exit was manned. Even the bathrooms were locked," she says -- something Makalai says she would never deliberately have put her family's business through. She, her brothers, and her parents are ethnic Indians who fled the butchery of Idi Amin in the 1970s after the Ugandan dictator called for eliminating "Asians" such as her family for taking the jobs of Africans.
"Coming from a situation where we were being persecuted as a minority, it really affects us emotionally," she says of the raid. People have since made death threats against her on the Internet, she says, and after losing $60,000 a day in production last week, Yamato's future is uncertain.
So is McDonough's and Velasquez's. The small group of compatriots Velasquez crossed the border with five years ago, she says, have since hired lawyers and become legal residents. But her 29-year-old boyfriend was poorer and went a different route, buying a resident ID and Social Security card with a made-up name and number.
Velasquez has supported her and been a good father to four-month-old Aaliyah, watching the baby two nights a week while McDonough takes nursing classes. But rather than sit in detention without a lawyer, she says, he signed voluntary deportation papers last week. When March's rent is up, she says, she is worried about what she and the baby will do.
"We all live together and take care of the bills," McDonough says. "It's financially very hard now, and emotionally, too."