Part 1 of 2: A safe haven, raided

This house on Atwater Street was one of eight Fair Haven residences raided on June 6, 2007.
This house on Atwater Street was one of eight Fair Haven residences raided on June 6, 2007. Photo by Isaac Arnsdorf.

The federal agents came at dawn on June 6, 2007, pounding on doors, yelling in an unfamiliar tongue, storming bedrooms, lining up the men on one side of the room and the women on the other. In three hours, they raided eight apartments and homes in New Haven’s predominantly Latino neighborhood of Fair Haven, making 29 arrests. Five of them were the intended targets; the rest were detained along the way.

Members of Fair Haven’s St. Rose of Lima Church worked with Junta for Progressive Action volunteers to get the latest information about the raids to members of the community.
Members of Fair Haven’s St. Rose of Lima Church worked with Junta for Progressive Action volunteers to get the latest information about the raids to members of the community.
The Mill River demarcates the western border of Fair Haven. Originally established in 1679 as a community for industrial workers, the neighborhood now struggles with problems of the post-industrial present.
The Mill River demarcates the western border of Fair Haven. Originally established in 1679 as a community for industrial workers, the neighborhood now struggles with problems of the post-industrial present.
The majority of New Haven’s 10,000 to 15,000 undocumented immigrants live in Fair Haven.
The majority of New Haven’s 10,000 to 15,000 undocumented immigrants live in Fair Haven.
Map of where the 2007 Fair Haven ICE raids occurred
Map of where the 2007 Fair Haven ICE raids occurred

The detainees found themselves actors in a national drama as their city became the setting of a rare collision of federal and municipal authority in a larger political battle over the fate of more than 10 million illegal immigrants in the United States. That debate is still ongoing, as is the litigation over the raids, which the detainees claim violated their constitutional rights. Last June, a judge sided with four of them, ruling that the agents, who refused to testify in person, “egregiously” violated constitutional protections against search and seizure; other cases are still on appeal.

Refusing to comment on matters pending before a court, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have repeatedly declined to discuss any details related to the raids. Even as the community remains haunted by the events of that Wednesday more than two years ago, exactly what transpired on that morning is still not publicly known. This is the untold story of what happened that day, based on hundreds of pages of affidavits, official reports, e-mails and other documents, and interviews with more than 50 people who were swept up in a clash that shook the city and divided the nation.

* * *

The people who make the beds and scrub the sinks of hotels are trained to keep out of the guests’ sights and to keep the guests out of theirs. Their work is supposed to be done behind the scenes, so they tread warily of “Do Not Disturb” signs or late sleepers still in the rooms. Their attentions remain fixed on sloppy sheets, strewn garbage, damp towels, stray hairs and empty soap dishes, not on open suitcases or hung garments. Occasionally they cannot help but notice when a guest leaves out something suspicious or sensitive, but they know better than to pay it any mind, which is not to say that they are indifferent to or uninterested in the goings-on in their hotels. Rather, they know that their business is solely cleaning rooms, and their guests’ business is solely their own.

So it must have been all the more exceptional for the housekeepers at a motel outside New Haven to have noticed a group of guests clustering in the parking lot on the early morning of June 6, 2007. The guests had been lodging there for several days, but today they looked different, clad in jackets and caps reading “POLICE” and “ICE.” As their fleet of unmarked white vans and pickup trucks departed, the maids working there, many of them Ecuadorian immigrants, called their husbands and children in New Haven to warn them.

The guests carried folders with pictures and information on 30 illegal immigrants they were targeting — whom they had been spying on for the past week. They drove off into New Haven, watching the city’s handful of finger-like skyscrapers, mostly urban renewal projects, emerging over the sound barriers and trees that lined the highway. They exited the highway through a twisted web of rusty overpasses that emptied onto worn roads, passing dusty lots littered with the vestiges of industrial activity.

The redbrick warehouses were missing windows, and some of those that were not boarded up and empty had found new use as strip clubs. But most of the buildings were modest Federal-style two-family houses, roughly the same as those in the more affluent neighborhoods of New Haven. Except here, in Fair Haven, they showed the wear of a frictional area, a place where cab drivers are loath to go at night, where most of the city’s 22,000 foreign-born residents (10,000 to 15,000 of them undocumented immigrants) make their home. The Italians used to live around this way, as did the Irish once. Now it’s mostly Latinos. Fair Haven, out of all the city’s neighborhoods, stands most apart, not only because it is bounded by the Interstate on one side and by water on the other three, but also because the smell of rotisserie and sounds of salsa could just as easily place it in any Latin American barrio.

It was on one of Fair Haven’s tree-lined streets, Barnes Avenue, that Jose Cortez was leaving his home for work at 5:40 a.m. on June 6, 2007. Usually people would be outside talking casually, but today he noticed something different: two vans, one black, one white, and six other cars with tinted windows.

He called his wife, Guillermina Sanchez, 32. “Come and see because it looks like agents are taking away the next-door neighbors,” he told her. The men certainly looked like agents of some sort. They were dressed in dark green, carrying papers, forcefully pushing eight people into the vans, speaking English to them. Guillermina came to the window in time to see two more men, handcuffed, taken into the vans. As they drove off, she noticed the letters “ICE.”

It was not until 10 a.m., when a friend told her there had been a raid, that Guillermina realized what the initials stood for: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

* * *

The ICE agents were there in service of their country. It was a country that, despite being founded and built by them, had always been discreetly hostile toward immigrants. But at the turn of the 21st century the matter was no longer merely one of nativism or xenophobia; there were more people immigrating illegally than legally, and there were believed to be 10 million of them nationwide. The issue was electrified by a heightened fear of unknown foreigners and a renewed sense of urgency, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, to secure the nation’s often-porous borders.

So the government moved to enforce its laws, tighten its borders and protect its people; and it tried to do so in a way that involved tracking down and arresting resident aliens like other criminal fugitives, at places of work or, less frequently, in their homes.

The raid in New Haven was part of Operation Return to Sender, a nationwide sweep in 2006 and 2007 in which over 23,000 immigrants were arrested in San Francisco, Miami, Boston and other American cities. According to the operations plan submitted April 20, 2007, the New Haven expedition was originally slated for May 2.

On April 30, one of the ICE agents organizing the New Haven raid e-mailed Connecticut State Police Detective Carmine Verno, asking him to participate, starting with a 5 a.m. meeting on May 2. “if you’re interested we’d love to have you!” the agent wrote. “We have 18 addresses–so it should be a fun time!! Let me know if you guys can play!!”

The raid was delayed until June, at which time Verno and three other state troopers assisted. Those policemen said they could not comment without the approval of the police department’s press office, which did not come. Reached by phone, one of those officers, Detective Richard Van Tine, said simply of what happened on June 6: “We assisted immigration.” He said he could not say more unless he was authorized because the case may be pending and subject to ongoing litigation. When reminded that he was not being sued, he said, “No, and I don’t think anyone should be.”

* * *

The doorbell rang at the big white house on Fillmore Street at 6:10 a.m. on June 6. It rang again. Kept ringing. Peering through the window, Samuel Sarmiento-Crespo, 44, saw uniformed men in bulletproof vests, and told his wife, Ivana Sotelo, that he thought they should not open the door. But, thinking it was the New Haven police, she said they should since they didn’t know what the emergency was. She pulled on pants and began unlocking the door. As soon as she did, the men pushed through.

“Who are you looking for?” she asked.

“A person from Guatemala,” one of the officers said as seven of them entered the apartment. They climbed the stairs and entered the bedrooms: Ivana and Samuel’s first, and then that of their son, Jerry Sarmiento, who was 14 and a student at Amistad Academy. The agents were searching for something. They told the family to sit down, and Jerry sat next to his mother on the living room sofa.

“Do you have any weapons?” the officers asked, but no one responded. “Do you have any weapons?” they said again, louder.

Seeing the family’s blank stares, one of the officers began to speak in Spanish. The agents had a piece of paper with a photo on the right-hand corner that looked like Ivana, who had been in the United States since 1988. “We need to do some paperwork for you,” one officer told Ivana, who started to cry. “You have to come with us.”

“Can I at least change my shoes first?” she asked. The officer obliged, sending another agent along with Samuel to fetch them. They returned down the stairs with a pair of shoes and socks.

“These are the wrong shoes,” she said.

“It doesn’t match her outfit,” one officer joked, and the rest laughed.

Samuel went to get a different pair, and Ivana put them on. As she stood, the officers handcuffed her and told her she would be deported to Nicaragua.

“Oh my God,” she said as they walked her to the van idling outside.

Her son Jerry watched through the window, crying.

* * *

Teresa Gonzalez Vala, 35, had gone to sleep around 11 the night before after coming home from the Mexican restaurant where she worked one of her two jobs. She watched an hour or so of television in her cramped room on the second floor of the beige vinyl house on Atwater Street. Her boyfriend, Amilcar Soto Velasquez, spent the night, as he did once a week or so, with her on the futon mattress that rested on rows of plastic crates. She could not afford a real bed frame or box-spring mattress; she had to pay her share of the $1,000 rent on the house in which 10 people lived (they were all originally from the same pueblo), and Teresa also had to send money back to Mexico to support her elderly parents and 16-year-old daughter.

On June 6, she planned to wake up at 9 a.m. to take a shower and go to work. When Amilcar, 22, stayed over, he usually left at 5 or 5:30 a.m., also to go to work, but today he happened to stay later.

At 6:30 a.m. they awoke to the sound of the front door opening. Teresa thought it might have been one of her housemates returning home from work, but she knew it was a stranger when she heard talking in English. In fact, her housemate Samiy Salazar had just opened the front door, and seven men and a woman pushed through it. Teresa heard them opening the other bedrooms, banging on the doors and shouting, ordering everyone to go into the living room. They entered Luis Sedeño Trujillo’s bedroom, waking him with a start. They pulled Cirilo Sedeño Trujillo, 23, out of bed, too, but gave him a chance to dress.

When the knocking came to Teresa’s door, which was locked, she shouted that she needed a moment to dress, grabbing whichever pants and shirt she found first. She didn’t want to unlock the door, but the constant banging was getting louder, so she opened the door before putting on shoes. The knocking had been coming from a blond woman of medium height, who then rushed into the room, shouting “Move!” The woman grabbed Teresa by the bicep and she and Amilcar staggered out of the bedroom and into the hallway as other officers searched the room.

Teresa thought they must have been police because of their dark green or blue uniforms, but she could not imagine why they would have come. “Why are they doing this when we’ve done nothing wrong?” she thought.

She and the seven other people sleeping in the apartment that morning were all brought to the living room, where Teresa tried to ask the officers who they were and why they were there. An officer guarded the back door so no one could escape. The agents lined up all the men on one side of the room, and the women and children on the other.

One of the officers spoke a little Spanish, but the female agent who had opened Teresa’s door told the residents to be quiet. “Shut up,” the agents barked over the four children’s wails.

One of the women who lived there, Norma Sedeño, 27, was holding her 7-year-old son, Alan, as he cried.

The officers asked for identification, and everyone gave their Mexican IDs — the only kind they had. Teresa said she had left hers in her room, so the female officer followed her to go get it; she also let her put on flip-flops. One man wore only boxers, and the officers permitted him to dress, but another wearing slippers was not allowed to put on shoes. “They are treating us like cattle,” Luis thought.

“Restroom,” Teresa kept saying to the female officer; she needed to use the toilet and that was the only way she knew to say it in English. But the officer wouldn’t let her go. “Restroom,” she repeated.

Teresa was pushed into the kitchen, which was dark except for the daylight peeking through the window. The female officer patted Teresa down, shackled Teresa’s hands in front of her and pushed her past the rickety wooden chairs further into the kitchen so the others could be handcuffed one by one: her boyfriend, Amilcar; Norma’s brothers, Cirilo and Luis; and Norma’s husband, Apolinar Flores.

Besides Teresa, the other women, who said they had young children, were not arrested. Norma’s 7-year-old son Alan, who was sitting next to her on the sofa crying and shaking, saw everything: from his parents getting pulled out of bed to his father getting handcuffed.

As they left, the officers handed Norma a paper on which was written: 450 Main Street, Room 501, Hartford, Connecticut, 06103. It was the address of the immigration court.

* * *

“They took my husband! They took my cousin!” Norma cried on the phone to Angelo Reyes, a Fair Haven business owner and developer. Children were screaming in the background. Standing in his laundromat on Lombard Street, Angelo couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He thought this wasn’t real, wasn’t true, couldn’t be, couldn’t happen, not in New Haven, not in America.

It was not until he knocked on Norma’s door a few minutes later and saw the fear in her eyes that he knew this was real. The children were shaking. He spent an hour there trying to calm her down, meanwhile calling Junta for Progressive Action, a community organization whose headquarters on Grand Avenue was quickly becoming Fair Haven’s crisis center and war room.

* * *

It was 8 a.m. in City Hall, on Church Street downtown, two miles away. The mayor, John DeStefano Jr., sat in his opulent office facing Kica Matos, the city services administrator, and Emily Byrne, his policy analyst. They were discussing how to convince New Haven banks to accept the Elm City Resident Card, which the city had approved two days earlier.

DeStefano first floated the idea of a city-issued ID — available to any resident regardless of immigration status — in 2005. Undocumented immigrants, lacking any valid form of identification, were unable to participate in simple civic functions such as obtaining a library card or opening a bank account. They were afraid to report crimes they suffered or witnessed because authorities might ask for IDs. New Haven’s card was designed to give them access to libraries, beaches, parks and the dump. All residents were encouraged to get one, and the city would recognize any form of documentation, including those issued by foreign governments. This meant illegal immigrants could obtain a legal government ID card. The Board of Aldermen passed the program, the first of its kind in the nation, on June 4.

The meeting on the morning of June 6 was to work out some of the logistics of the card’s implementation, which was when, as the mayor remembers it, the phone at the front desk started ringing with calls from Fair Haven residents saying there was a raid. At 8 a.m. he called the New Haven Police Department to find out what was going on. (Byrne says she does not remember the specifics of what happened, and the police chief at the time, Francisco Ortiz, declined to say.) As Kica Matos remembers it, a page on the telephone interrupted their meeting. The mayor raised the headset to his ear; then his expression went blank.

“Does this have anything to do with the ID cards?” he said.

Matos turned to Byrne. She had feared but fully expected this to happen for a long time. “I think there’s a raid going on,” she said.

DeStefano hung up, and Matos’ fear was confirmed. The call was from Rob Smuts, the city’s chief administrative officer in charge of fire and police. At 7:15, he had just told the mayor, the NHPD’s non-emergency communications line received a call from ICE to inform them they were conducting a raid, which was already in progress. By 8 a.m., it was just about wrapping up. (Smuts says he could not remember the details of the morning.)

“We need to let the community know,” Matos said. “And we have to find out what’s happening to the detainees.” She said she had to start making calls.

Sure enough, by the time she ran out of the mayor’s office and into her own, her phone was already ringing. It was Norma Franceschi.

Everyone, it seemed, knew Norma Franceschi. She owned a grocery store on Castle Street in Fair Haven, and she was a woman who would give someone she was meeting for the first time a kiss on the cheek. At 6:30 that morning, her husband had gone to pick up Maria de Jesus, who everyone called Marichui, to take her to open up Norma’s store at 7. They were in the car when Marichui received a call from her cousin, Norma Sedeño, who was crying that the police had arrested her husband and cousins. Marichui started crying and called Norma Franceschi, who was still at her home in West Haven. “Norma! Norma!” she said. “Immigration is in New Haven. They took everybody!”

Franceschi had suspected this might happen after a confrontation with counter-protestors at a rally for the New Haven ID cards. Someone had shouted, “There will be consequences!” and she thought something was going to happen. She thought about the time in 1976 when immigration came to arrest her husband because, after immigrating from Argentina in 1971, their visa had expired and there was a lag before the new one was approved. They came early in the morning, when she had been watching TV, and she answered the door holding her two-year-old daughter. She would never forget how the first thing the tall, red-headed officer did was put his foot in the door so she couldn’t close it on him. She called the bakery to warn her husband so he could hide; and she called her attorney, a young Yale Law School graduate named Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67, who helped them get their paperwork in order.

Norma remembered all this and remembered what it felt like to fear Immigration, and then she thought that the first place she should go was St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Fair Haven. She got into her car and called Matos from the road. “Immigration is here,” she cried on the phone, “and they’re taking people away. We don’t know what’s going on. We need help.”

When Norma hung up, Matos’ first outgoing call was to John Lugo, a volunteer community organizer with the immigrant-rights group Unidad Latina en Accion. She told him there had been a raid and he should come over right away. And no, she was not kidding.

Lugo ran out of his house and into his car and tore down the streets toward City Hall as fast as the Toyota Tercel he bought for $500 could go. He had no time to think about how he had always thought it could never happen here, how he had heard about the raids in other cities but thought New Haven was safe, how it had an order that city police should not enforce federal immigration law, or how no one would ever feel safe again, because he was frantically driving with one hand and calling everyone he knew with his cell phone in the other, spreading the word about the raid.

When he arrived after five or 10 minutes, Matos told him all she knew, which was not much so far: just the call to the police and the panic in Fair Haven. She told him to start making calls to figure out what was going on.

“Man, [forget] this,” he interrupted her. “We should be out there. We should confront them.”

“Don’t waste your time,” Matos said. “We need you. You can’t help us from jail.” He started to argue. “You have to sit here!” she pressed him. It was not a suggestion.

He yielded and started dialing, surrounded by the constant shriek of ringing phones. He called community organizations, other volunteers, proprietors, anyone. But after an hour, he knew he couldn’t stay penned up in City Hall any longer. He told Matos he was hitting the streets, and now that he had cooled down a little, she let him go.

Driving toward Fair Haven, Lugo’s phone was still ringing constantly; he used so many minutes that his monthly phone bill, which typically ran about $150, would top $1,000. As he approached Grand Avenue, sweat was beginning to bead below his thick curly hair, even though it was a mild 61 degrees. On a typical day, Grand Avenue is crowded with people, blasting music or socializing beneath Spanish marquees as children play on the sidewalks; it has a street culture redolent of its inhabitants’ native lands. But today it was a ghost town. There was literally no one. Few cars. No people. No noise. Just emptiness.

* * *

Lucy Negron sat alone in her beauty parlor on Grand Avenue, staring outside at the vacated thoroughfare. She could have sworn she saw ICE vans roaming down the avenue. No one came into her store at all, and her regulars were calling to say they were too scared the leave the house. The weeks-long paralysis, she estimates, cost her parlor between $4,000 and $5,000.

After spending the morning driving around to businesses and houses, responding to distressed calls or alleged Immigration sightings, John Lugo started to get calls from panicked parents. Crying on the phone, mothers told him they couldn’t pick up their children at school because they were afraid of getting arrested if they went outside. So Lugo went around to schools picking up children, who got into his car petrified, convinced by their classmates’ teasing that their parents had been abducted. The staff at one Head Start center in Fair Haven decided that, even though the law required them to, they would not call the police if families were more than two hours late to pick up their children; they feared that children would be separated from undocumented parents. But none of the children’s parents were detained, and all 350 of the children in the center’s care were picked up, if not by their own parents then by friends or community members such as John Lugo.

Angelo Reyes, meanwhile, was making some 20 grocery runs for families who were afraid to go to a store. They told him they would rather have starved.

For Lugo and Angelo, the base of operations was Junta for Progressive Action’s headquarters on Grand Avenue, which since 9 a.m. had been packed with as many as 80 people carrying bags of clothes and wanting to hide or sleep in the basement. The cries of panic were punctuated by the phones ringing with more ICE sightings or distressed households. Junta’s entire staff, as well as 30 representatives from St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Fair Haven, started a phone bank, calling over 800 numbers of families in New Haven, telling them what had happened and what to do, until 11 p.m.

The priest at St. Rose, Father Jim Manship, heard of the raid at 7 that morning, and thought “What is my government doing? These are pot scrubbers and gardeners — not exactly threats to public safety.” Six months prior, when ICE started conducting mass raids at factories, Manship had helped the community plan contingencies should ICE come to a workplace in New Haven. But he never thought they would come knocking on people’s doors, pulling them out of bed.

In the afternoon, John Lugo and others hit the streets on patrol, donning shirts that read “No One is Illegal.” They handed out fliers telling people what to do if ICE came (be quiet and don’t open the door) and gave them a list of numbers to call in an emergency. Junta’s copy machine broke repeatedly throughout the day from running off thousands of copies.

The entire neighborhood descended into a game of telephone. Rumors flew about hundreds of arrests, ICE vans circling like vultures, ICE agents on every corner, barging into restaurants, knocking down doors of houses.

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