BY ALFONSO CHARDY
Two young undocumented immigrants claim federal agents punched and kicked them during a search for human traffickers. They have been ordered out of the country by May 18.Adolfo García and Julio Díaz, two Guatemalan cousins, were watching television in their Homestead house the night of Nov. 19, 2008, when they heard screaming in the living room.
They say they hid in a closet, thinking robbers — or maybe killers — had broken in.
The “intruders,” it turned out, were Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who, according to García and Díaz, ordered them to get down on the floor, where they handcuffed them. Díaz said one of the agents hit him in the chest with his fist and then kicked him in the face. García said an agent kicked him in the ribs and the mouth.
“One was tying me up while the other one kicked me, and when I felt that pain I said, ‘Jesus,’ and then he asked me, ‘Why are you screaming?’ and kicked me again in the mouth to make me shut up,” García said.
After being detained for several weeks, the cousins were released and resumed their work as agricultural workers, while their lawyers have tried to legalize their presence in the United States.
But last month, ICE ordered that García, 20, and Díaz, 21, return to Guatemala before May 18.
“This case had a great impact in Homestead,” said Jonathan Fried, executive director of the group WeCount!, which defends immigrants. “It intimidated many people in the immigrant community, and now many no longer want to cooperate with the police, even when they are the victims of a crime.”
Romy Lerner, attorney for Americans for Immigrant Justice, the group that represents the Guatemalans, said it is unfair to force her clients to leave the country.
“None of them faced accusations of being responsible of a crime,” Lerner said. “On the contrary, they were victims of a crime. Therefore, to deport Mr. García and Mr. Díaz would be a serious injustice.”
It all started in January 2008, when ICE opened a investigation into an alleged human trafficking network that involved young women and minors, some of them kidnapped in Mexico and brought to the United States to work as prostitutes, according to internal ICE documents obtained by WeCount!
According to information a confidential informer gave ICE, the prostitution network operated in Homestead, Kendall, Central Florida, New York and Massachusetts.
As a result of the investigation, ICE agents carried out a series of operations on Nov. 29, 2008, around Florida that rescued several women who had been forced to work as prostitutes. Several men were arrested.
Although some of the detainees were accused of human trafficking, Díaz, García and the other seven men arrested in the same house were listed only as undocumented, and were placed on a path to deportation. Five of the nine later made accusations that they had been mistreated, but only García and Díaz decided to speak publicly about the incident, in an attempt to avoid deportation.
As a result of their accusations, immigration officials, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice opened investigations, though they never issued a report or filed charges against the agents, Lerner said.
Néstor Yglesias, ICE spokesman in Miami, said earlier this month that the investigation determined that the accusations of mistreatment were groundless.
“ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility investigated the allegations of excessive use of force by agents during ‘Operation ResQ’ in November 2008,” Yglesias wrote in an email to El Nuevo Herald. “The investigation, which concluded in October 2009, found the accusations against agents unfounded.”
An ICE’s internal email obtained by WeCount! shows that an ICE official described a fight between agents and nine detainees on Nov. 19.
“No agent was harmed,” the email says. “I’m not sure what happened among the bad guys, but who cares?”
Lerner also said that she requested visas for four of the detainees, but authorities approved only one. She also asked to suspend the deportation process for the other three, but ICE approved only one request and denied the visas of Díaz and García.
Lerner said Díaz and García were arrested as “collaterals,” a reference to undocumented immigrants without criminal records who are arrested in the course of ICE agents carrying out an operation in search of criminals.