Broken trust

Despite police outreach efforts, raid has caused fear in the eyes of immigrants

The power of perception

By Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Nov. 9, 2006, 5:00 p.m.)

When Whitewater police along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided Star Packaging on Aug. 8, it left a Hispanic community wondering if local authorities had more in mind than preserving the peace.

"Most (Latino) people that I've spoken with, they just feel like they can't trust the police department any more," said Juan Gomez, a 20-year-old UW-Whitewater resident who immigrated from Mexico when he was 13.

Gomez said the mistrust stems from local police asking ICE agents to take part in the identity theft investigation involving officials at Star Packaging. Today, Hispanics in Whitewater often wonder if they will be targeted next.

"If there is an emergency, I'm pretty sure they will still call (police), but I don't see them approaching the police department with the same trust as they did in the past," Gomez said. "They will try to stay away and they don't want to be interrogated."

Community leaders have also observed the impression the raid might have created.

"I don't believe (Whitewater police) were investigating anything about immigration. I think they have enough with everything else that happens here," said Kenneth Abarca, a pastor for the Hispanic Ministry at Whitewater Community Church. "I don't have the impression they are doing those kinds of things, but I see how it is possible. By association, (Hispanics) see the (police) uniform and they think it is related with immigration. It motivates the fears because they don't know."

A community changed

Ripple effects have been seen in the community following the operation.

The mother of a toddler was detained during the raid and spent nine days in jail, Abarca said.

She's since been reunited with her family, but now, "When the mother walks out of the bedroom the kid starts to cry. He fears his mother is leaving him," Abarca said.

He gave another example of a Latino child playing with the phone days after the raid and dialing 911 accidentally.

"When a police officer appeared and tried to talk with somebody responsible-something pretty normal in other conditions-when the parents saw the police there they had another impression," Abarca said.

Jorge Islas-Martinez, vice president for the Latino support group Sigma America, shared more stories.

Latinos were put on edge when Whitewater police entered a church for a police-sponsored outreach meeting weeks after the raid. Islas-Martinez was told officers entered through different doors and audience members thought, "Uh oh, something's going to happen now."

"It's the perception that they see someone in a uniform now and ask, 'What's going to happen?'" Islas-Martinez said.

Latinos in Whitewater have been affected financially, emotionally and the balance in some families has teetered into the ground, Abarca said.

Paying bonds upward of $7,000 for those who were detained and the loss of a steady job pushed some families into financial hardship. Finding work has been nearly impossible and paying for an immigration lawyer is no small fee.

"Right now there is a family, they do not even have a bed where they can sleep. They don't have a table where they can eat due to this raid," Islas-Martinez said of a family where the father was detained because he was undocumented. "They didn't have the money to pay the rent where they were living. To raise the money to pay the bond, they had to sell their stuff."

That family is living in a mobile home loaned by another Hispanic family.

Children have been isolated from parents and living with distant family members in a few cases, Arbaca said.

"The raid has caused psychological problems with the kids," Islas-Martinez said. "When one saw the police they told their mom to hide because they were afraid they will take them away."

Hispanic children have suffered in school as their minds wander during class, wondering if their parents will be home when the bus drops them off, he added.

Some undocumented immigrants are simply left waiting and wondering where they will go and what they will do when they are deported, Abarca said.

"These are the consequences that are very hard," Abarca said.

Department reaches out

Years before the operation at Star Packaging, the Whitewater Police Department started conducting Hispanic outreach programs, said Lt. Lisa Otterbacher.

Pamphlets and publications were translated into Spanish. Meetings were held to let Latinos know of their rights and the role of police in the community. Information was provided about what programs and resources are available in the city. A federal immigration employee spoke to Latinos about ways to become American citizens.

"The purpose is to really make sure that that part of the community was as informed as the part of the community that speaks English," Otterbacher said.

While the fears may be genuine, the Whitewater Police Department has received no official complaints related to the operation, Police Chief James Coan said. He urged anyone to come forward with their complaints and assured there would be no repercussions for doing so.

The police department has also tried to employ a force that is reflective of the community. There are currently two Latinos on the force-one full-time officer and one community service officer-both of whom typically have a good working relationship with the Hispanic residents.

Officer Zena Virrueta said her participation in the operation was one of the hardest things she's ever done. The El Paso, Texas, native felt sympathy for the Mexican employees who were caught up in the identity theft investigation, but did not back down from the goal of the department to stop identity fraud.

"I've heard that they were worried; if we're looking for whether they're documented or not," Virreuta said. "I've repeatedly advised them, for a police officer, it's our obligation to protect and serve every citizen that lives in this community. It doesn't matter their documentation status.

"We don't check on everybody's immigration status. That would be discrimination and that would be against their rights."

She hasn't seen much change in the way Latinos view police.

"They are having contact with us. They are still coming in," she said.

The Latino community has taken part in the outreach programs and appreciates the good faith effort made by the police department, Islas-Martinez said. Returning the community to its pre-raid mood will be a long journey with efforts needed from both sides.

"It's hard. When you trust someone, gaining that trust is not easy. And to lose it, you will lose it in one second," he said, snapping his fingers. "To get it back, it will take time."

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