A year later, Willmar still feels effects of immigration raids

Downtown Willmar
Downtown Willmar
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Some people claim the problem with last year's immigration raid was the way it was conducted.

During the four-day Willmar operation, immigration attorneys took affidavits from dozens of people caught up in the raid.

Gloria Contreras Edin, executive director of Centro Legal, a St. Paul-based non-profit law firm, reads the story of one woman who claims four immigration agents entered her home without consent.

"One large man walked up to me and shined a light on my face. He began to question me and said, 'Who lives here?' "

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Quite a few people left out of fear. We lost some families from the church because it was uncomfortable for them.

Contreras Edin says that was just one of the stories that shows what actually happened during those days.

"That was part one affidavit from a woman who experienced a very traumatic experience when agents actually broke into her home," she said.

Similar stories come from both illegal immigrants and U.S. citizens according to Contreras Edin.

Her firm has filed a lawsuit on behalf of more than a dozen people claiming federal agents violated their right against unlawful search and seizure.

Centro Legal is also asking a federal immigration judge to overturn a decision to deport 10 immigrants because the firm says the raids were unconstitutional.

Federal immigration officials, however, deny any wrongdoing.

"The federal suit is still in the courts we are fighting it vigorously because the allegations are absolutely false," said Tim Counts, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE.

Counts said agents involved in the raids treated everyone they encountered in a professional manner.

"We did not break into any home. We did not break any window. We did not enter a house without specific permission from an adult occupant of that house," he said. "These are allegations that routinely surface. It has come to the point where we routinely expect to hear those sorts of allegations every time we do one of our operations."

Despite the criticism, Counts said, those operations have done their job. He said in 2007 more than 4,000 illegal immigrants in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and North and South Dakota were told to leave the country. Figures from ICE show that nationally, 282,000 immigrants were deported in 2007.

Those arrested in Willmar were either jailed or ordered to leave the country.

But other illegal immigrants who weren't caught up in the operation, simply left on their own, presumably in fear of future raids.

The arrests have had a lasting effect on this western Minnesota community of about 20,000 people.

Sister Mary Kay Mahowald has seen changes at St. Mary's Catholic church in Willmar since the raids.

"Quite a few people left out of fear," she said. "We lost some families from the church because it was uncomfortable for them."

Mahowald thinks about a dozen immigrant families from her parish have left town.

Maria Diaz
Maria Diaz
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Maria Diaz works with the city's immigrant community as a part of the Raices Project, which is an effort to develop leaders in the Latino population.

Diaz said the entire Latino community in Willmar seems more united since last year's raids, but she is also concerned more people in Willmar now wrongly assume the majority of Latino residents don't have the proper documents to live in the country.

"That's something that the community needs to be aware that a lot of us are citizens and residents and are documented," she said. "And just because we have brown skin, that doesn't make us undocumented."

One Willmar City Council member admits he's heard that sentiment in the community. Steve Gardner said he hopes it's something that can be stopped.

"It takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of willingness," Gardner said. "I think we've shown that in the community before and I think we can show it again, but we need to get people to ratchet down the rhetoric."

Gardner said the people of Willmar should work hard to bridge the gap with the immigrant community. He said the town should let the federal government worry about immigration policy.