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Illegal immigrants feared fire evacuations

Deportation was worry for some

- Michele Schreiner and survivors of the California wildfires gave thanks in church services yesterday as the damage toll mounted. - Michele Schreiner and survivors of the California wildfires gave thanks in church services yesterday as the damage toll mounted. (RICK BOWMER/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

SAN DIEGO - Flames were only one worry for some illegal immigrants in the California fire zone. Equally scary were the crowded roads and evacuation centers, heavy with law enforcement officers, including US Border Patrol agents.

Some wondered if they would be deported if they went to shelters.

"We decided that we wouldn't go because they ask for your name and everything," said day laborer Jose Salgado as he waited for work last week off the Interstate 5 freeway near Rancho Santa Fe.

His friends working in the nearby tomato fields had different concerns, he said: "They didn't know if they would have a job when they got back."

US authorities say they have not been rounding up illegal immigrants at evacuation centers, a claim supported by Mexican Consulate officials in San Diego who visited numerous sites. "We are not arresting fire evacuees. It's absolutely ludicrous to suggest otherwise," said Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Immigrant rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union, however, contend that authorities have created a climate of intimidation through neglect and such policies as asking for identification at some shelters.

During the wildfires, more than 100 federal agents were redeployed from their border posts to lend assistance. They helped evacuate homes, staff checkpoints, guard against looters, and assist at evacuation shelters.

At Qualcomm Stadium, which became a shelter, uniformed border patrol agents helped provide logistics support, mingling with law enforcement agents from all over the county.

The mere presence of border patrol was enough to scare off some migrants. "Having people at evacuation sites in Border Patrol uniforms is asinine," said Enrique Morones, president of the Border Angels, an immigrant rights group.

Rumors of deportations grew Wednesday when San Diego police arrested a family from Mexico at Qualcomm Stadium on charges of stealing food the family intended to resell. After being handed over to border agents, the family, whose members had lived in the United States for several years, was deported. Footage of the arrest was replayed numerous times on local television stations.

Although Mexican consular officials and some immigrant rights groups said the arrest appeared to be an isolated incident, some migrants avoided going to Qualcomm.

"They were petrified," said Remy Bermudez, a teacher who served as a volunteer at the stadium. "They said, 'After what happened . . . we're afraid.' "

The ACLU and immigrant rights groups say illegal immigrants were subjected to racial profiling at Qualcomm and were treated abusively by some volunteers who questioned their legal status. They have also said the city did not go out to migrant camps to tell people to evacuate.

Fred Sainz, a spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders, said identification was not required to enter shelters. And if people living in remote migrant camps were not told to evacuate, he said, it was not part of a calculated effort to hurt migrants.

The mayor, he said, has always looked out for the needs of the migrant community and has tried to protect them from encounters with Minutemen and other groups that oppose illegal immigration.

Critics say local and federal officials should be more sensitive to how migrants perceive things.

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