Alondra Espejel was in Willmar during the recent immigration arrests. Espejel is a part of the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network, and was working to coordinate legal help for immigrant families. She did similar work during last year's arrests in Worthington. Both cities attract immigrants because of a need for workers at local meat packing plants.
Espejel says the operation in Willmar felt more intense than the one in Worthington even though fewer people were arrested. For one thing she said the immigration agents took several days to make the arrests.
"The fact that they were there for four days, is very unusual for us. We have been working in the field for two, three, four years and I have never heard of ICE agents being in the city for more than one day," Espejel says.
Attorneys from Centro Legal, a non-profit St. Paul law firm that provides legal services to immigrants, were also on hand during the arrests. Centro Legal's executive director Gloria Conteras Edin now represents several people arrested in Willmar as they face hearings before a federal immigration judge.
Contreras Edin thinks the Willmar operation was more intense because many of the arrests took place in homes.
“I have never heard of ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) agents being in the city for more than one day.”Alondra Espejel
"Well it certainly feels different, it certainly looked different. Going into people's homes was far more intrusive. I have several declarations from most of my clients that go to the fact that this was an involved forced entry into the homes. People would slightly crack open the doors and then the officers would push their way in," Contreras Edin says.
Immigration officials say they weren't pounding down doors during the Willmar operation. But they remind people that they don't necessarily need a warrant to enter a home. They just need someone in the house to let them in.
Tim Counts, spokesman with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency in Bloomington says their operation in Willmar was different than a workplace immigration raid. Although he maintains that doesn't make the operation a random sweep for illegal immigrants.
"The mistaken perception in the general publics mind sometime is we sort of roam the streets looking for illegal immigrants, nothing could be farther from the truth," Counts says.
The Willmar arrests are part of a nationwide operation that's also resulted in recent arrests in Michigan and North Carolina. Counts says they're concentrating on arresting illegal immigrants with criminal records. It's an effort that recently moved up the priority list, but Counts says its not a new idea.
"Well the methods and techniques we use are no different than we have used for many years. And that is doing investigative work to check into criminal databases, to check into crimes to determine if any of them are in the country illegally," Counts says.
At the same time Counts says agents are required to arrest anyone they find who's in the country illegally, because they're breaking the law. This latest immigration operation was announced in May of 2006, and since then nearly 20,000 illegal immigrants have been arrested.