By JEAN ORTIZ Associated Press Writer
6:13 AM EST, February 12, 2009
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) As federal agents step up immigration enforcement efforts nationwide, Shelley Schrader isn't wondering if another major immigration raid will happen nearby - but when.
Schrader, like others who work with immigrants, feels obligated to help in the aftermath of a raid. As senior director of community service for Omaha's Catholic Charities, Schrader spends her days connecting immigrants with social services and legal help. And she knows that role would only intensify if federal agents made another large-scale arrest as they did in 2006 at a Grand Island meatpacking plant.
So if it happened tomorrow, is she ready? "I would say not at all," she said without hesitation.
In an era of increased enforcement and continued calls for immigration reform, tensions are high among those who fear a stronger push toward immigration raids. A national effort is under way to help civic leaders, those in social services and legal advocates plan more coordinated responses. Many of those people believe the mass-arrest method ultimately damages communities and families, including individuals in the country legally.
The Washington, D.C.-based Catholic Legal Immigration Network, better known as CLINIC, has already held training sessions in Dallas and Raleigh, N.C., as part of a larger effort to help communities prepare for raids. A two-day training session started Wednesday at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. It drew more than 75 people, including Chuck Berendes, an immigration attorney with Catholic Charities of La Crosse, Wis.
When U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided the Agriprocessors Inc. plant in nearby Postville, Iowa, last May, Berendes found himself answering legal questions, trying to track down people arrested and juggling other duties.
"It was just like a tornado had gone through the town, except there was no damage," he said, of the people milling around and trying to figure out what to do next. "If it could happen in a small town like Postville, it could happen in Wisconsin, too," he said. "Knowing the chaos that it creates, I would be irresponsible to not have tried to prepare in some way for that to happen," he said.
Besides training sessions, CLINIC is working with community leaders and advocates to build raid preparation plans in Green Bay, Wis.; Jackson, Miss.; Salina, Kan.; Pueblo, Colo.; Cincinnati; Boise, Idaho; New Orleans; Houston; and Omaha, said Tanisha Bowens, who coordinates CLINIC's Raids Preparedness and Response Project.
Workplace arrests - most for being in the country illegally — have climbed sharply to reach 6,287 nationally in 2008. That's a more than tenfold increase since 2003. Congress has provided for more ICE positions and more funding, and agents are getting better at their jobs, said Tim Counts, an ICE spokesman.
In 2005, the federal agency spent about $1.2 billion for detention and illegal immigration removal activities. This year nearly $2.5 billion is budgeted. Counts resents the term "raid." It connotes something that is chaotic with agents bursting in and people running, he said. "We do everything in our power to make sure that these operations don't look like that," he said. "They are always orderly, methodical, thorough and professional."
ICE also considers humanitarian issues and releases some parents to return to care for their children. But immigration law enforcement is no different from any other law enforcement, Counts said. People who engage in illegal activity should expect family disruption.
"That's no different for an immigration violator than it is for a deadbeat parent or somebody who is cheating on their taxes," he said. The costs can be felt far beyond the individual level. Agriprocessors filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November and blamed its financial problems on the May raid at its kosher slaughterhouse in Postville. Agriprocessors also operated a plant near Gordon, Neb., that closed because of the company's financial problems. The Postville plant was the largest employer in the town that once boasted a population of 2,300. In November, the Postville City Council declared the city a humanitarian and economic disaster area. It's the kind of situation Bowens and others involved with the training hope to eliminate.
The training isn't aimed at helping anyone thwart arrest, but rather what to do to prepare, from having identifying documents readily accessible to understanding the legal process once detained, she said.
Bowens is not surprised Schrader feels unprepared.
"I think many, many communities feel that way," she said.