ATLANTA – A civil rights group sued the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency Wednesday, claiming its agents had harassed five U.S. citizens of Mexican descent during raids targeting illegal immigrants in southeast Georgia.
The Southern Poverty Law Center said the agents were engaging in a "Gestapo-like" campaign to drive Latinos out of the area. It claimed the agents entered houses without warrants, stopped cars on the street, terrified Latinos and vandalized their property.
"They trampled on the constitutional rights of every person of Hispanic descent who was unfortunate to be in their way," said Mary Bauer, an attorney with the center who is representing the plaintiffs. "You don't get to stop all who look brown."
The center, based in Montgomery, Ala., wants an injunction preventing ICE from conducting similar raids, as well as unspecified compensation for the plaintiffs.
ICE spokesman Marc Raimondi called the accusations "patently false."
He said agents were looking only for immigrants who used fraudulent documents to work at a local poultry plant.
The complaint, filed in federal court, concerns a sweep in which more than 120 illegal immigrants were rounded up around Stillmore in rural southeastern Georgia.
The arrests started at the Crider Inc. poultry plant Sept. 1. Over the Labor Day weekend, agents converged on workers' homes after getting the addresses of suspected illegal immigrants from Crider's files.
Agents raided the Reidsville house where 14-year-old Marie Justeen Mancha was alone getting ready for school, the Texas-born teenager said. She said she had unlocked the door thinking her mother was returning home and found instead several agents in her house, one of whom had his hand on a holstered gun.
"It scares me," Mancha said at a news conference. "I thought me being born in the U.S., they couldn't do this."
Mancha said the agents asked her if she or her mother, who had worked at the Crider poultry plant, were here illegally, then left after about five minutes. Her mother, Maria Christina Martinez, said she was born in Florida and was the only adult living in the house.
Another plaintiff alleges that agents stopped her as she was driving home, repeatedly called her a Mexican and pulled her out of her car. After she insisted she was born in Texas and had a valid Georgia driver's license, agents let her go, according to the lawsuit.
The agency, its heads, and the 30 agents involved in the raid are listed as defendants.
Raimondi declined to comment on the specifics of the accusations, but said race and ethnicity play no role in the agency's work. The agency is reviewing the accusations but its enforcement work is continuing, he said.
A sixth plaintiff in the case is a trailer park landlord who claims his property was damaged when federal agents broke into numerous trailers.
The center is seeking class-action status for the lawsuit to cover everyone of Hispanic origin or appearance who lives within the area covered by immigration agents headquartered in Atlanta.
The federal government has reported that Georgia had the fastest-growing illegal immigrant population in the country. The number more than doubled from an estimated 220,000 in 2000 to 470,000 last year. This year, state lawmakers passed some of the nation's toughest measures targeting illegal immigrants.