Sweeping Up the Aliens
This article originally appeared in the issue of February 5, 1977.
A trial that will begin on March 8 in Tucson, Ariz. may have far-reaching political and legal consequences throughout the United States. It stems from an incident that took place last April 9 in the Chicano barrio of westside Tucson. On that day, ten uniformed officers of the U.S. Border Patrol, accompanied by a U.S. Attorney and a Tucson police officer, entered the offices of the Manzo Area Council, a federally funded social service center, and announced that they were going to impound all the files containing data about the immigrant status of the people the center served.
Ms. Margo Cowan, the 27-year-old director of the center, shook her head with incredulity and asked William Vogel, the U.S. Attorney, "You are going to do what?" Vogel produced a search warrant, warning Cowan that, unless she unlocked the door to her office, the officers would kick it down. Within an hour, despite vigorous protests from the director and her staff, the border patrolmen had seized more than 800 files, most of which dealt with senior citizen and youth programs unrelated to the immigration services offered at the center. The implications of this dubious exercise of authority touch the lives of hundreds of thousands of the foreign born now living in this country, raise questions about the thousands of agencies that exist to advise them, and may well affect the disposition of legislation awaiting action by the new Congress.
A few weeks after the Manzo raid, the Border Patrol began a house-to-house sweep for undocumented immigrants, basing their moves on the papers they had acquired from Ms. Cowan's office. She and her assistants have reported that between 150 and 200 people were arrested and deported in the next few months, all of them former clients at the Manzo center. And since then, several other former clients have disappeared. They, too, said Cowan, were probably deported.
Then, in late October, a grand jury charged Cowan and her assistants with twenty-seven counts, ranging, from transporting illegal aliens and aiding aliens to elude inspection, to entering false statements, perjury and conspiracy: Cowan was charged on all counts, incurring a possible maximum penalty of seventy-seven years in prison and a $98,000 fine. Also charged was Cathy Montano, 20 (thirteen counts), Margie Ramirez, 22 (twelve counts) and Sister Ann Gabriel Marciacq of the St. Joseph of Carondolet (three counts).
Ms. Cowan, a former United Farm Worker organizer who speaks fluent Spanish, said that harassment by federal authorities began several months before the raid, when Manzo organizers sought to represent a client, Edgardo Mendivil. "Edgardo was close to legalizing his status when he was arrested near his place of employment. We represented him at his hearing, asking that the charges be dropped and that he be put on docket control [house arrest] until his appointment date with the American Embassy in Mexico. The request was denied and he got ninety days in jail."
The excuse for the raid, said Cowan, were allegations that she and her staff were breaking the law by helping undocumented immigrants to receive welfare and food stamps. "The truth is, they couldn't find anything," she said, "not even a technicality we might have been guilty of transgressing." One of the indictments charges her with transporting Alicia Marquez, 15 years old and pregnant, from Manzo to a juvenile Court judge so that she could get permission to marry the U.S. citizen who was the father of her unborn child. "This is true," continued Cowan. "She needed the permission in order to legalize her status. But the...question is, is it the intent of the law to prohibit transporting people for gain and eluding inspection; or is it to be carried to the point where it prevents people from receiving supportive services they need to legalize their status?'
Immediately after the raid, Cowan and her staff sought the help of Robert Hooker, a Tucson lawyer, who asked a federal judge to order the confiscated property returned. The judge denied the request, announcing that the status of the people under investigation had yet to be determined. The case is now on appeal before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
Subsequently, several Manzo clients filed a class-action suit against the U.S. Attorney, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Border Patrol, charging them with illegal entry, illegal search and seizure, illegal questioning of clients, and improper deportation procedures.
As for the motives behind the raid, Cowan, along with other directors of community action agencies, believes that it is part of an attempt by the INS to weaken the advocacy process on behalf of undocumented immigrants throughout the United States. A few days after the raid, the Manzo defendants held a press conference and charged that the immediate purpose of the raid was not to investigate an immigration, counseling service but to gather up more than 400 people who lacked documents and ship them out of the country without due process of law.
Cowan believes that Tucson was singled out because it is a conservative area with weak community organization. "Initially," she said, "we weren't able to put up much resistance against this kind of attack. People were scared at first, but the aftereffects were like a tidal wave. Groups as widely diverse as the Mexican American Chamber of Commerce and the more militant Raza Unida Party came together in support of the defendants.
"The way our people have been treated by the Border Patrol in the past few years has done a lot to politicize the community. People are continually living in fear and. waiting for raids in the middle of the night. There have been cases of mothers deported while six or seven of their minor children stayed with relatives and neighbors."
Crucial to the defense in the Manzo case is the sanctity of the client-counselor relationship. Since the raid in April, few undocumented immigrants have dared to come to the center for assistance, knowing that their files might be confiscated by the Border Patrol and used against them in deportation hearings. The case also raises the question of how.' the term "illegal" should be used. "Illegal aliens," an opprobrious designation, is applied indiscriminately by the press. "We think that 'illegal' is a demeaning word," Margo Cowan said, "and more than that it is very shallow. Most of our clients have never been to a deportation hearing, nor have they had their status defined. They find themselves without documents, but they do not find themselves in an illegal status, technically speaking. This is at the heart of' our defense."
She added an urgent footnote. "Furthermore, 20 percent of our clients are U.S.-born, but can't prove it. Some of them are forced to live in Sonora, Mexico, until they can prove their U.S. citizenship. We are saying that people are not here illegally until they have been adjudicated in some kind of hearing or court of law."