When Teresa Gonzalez Vala was put in the unmarked white van outside her house on Atwater Street early on the morning of June 6, 2007, there were already four men and two women inside. They sat on two benches facing each other between the barred, tinted windows. She thought they would be deported right away.
Cirilo Sedeño Trujillo, too, thought they would be going straight back to Mexico. But he was not as scared, or at least he did not want to appear to be; he had been arrested once before, and he felt prepared for whatever was coming. Plus, he knew something the immigration officers did not, which was that Teresa’s boyfriend, Amilcar Soto Velazquez, had hidden his cell phone in his pocket before he was handcuffed.
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When there were nine people inside, the ignition started smoothly and the van started to move, fast, with Teresa angling to see where they were going through the windshield, which was also the only light source. One right and two lefts later, the van stopped in front of a house on Peck Street.
Inside, on the second floor, a 34-year-old man was sleeping with his wife and children in the same room when they were awakened by a knock. He went into the living room half-dressed and asked, “Who is it?” in Spanish (his English being meager). “Police” was the reply, also in Spanish.
“Who are you looking for?” asked the resident. Someone named Chavez. There was no one named Chavez in the apartment, he answered.
He opened the door three or four inches and saw two policemen. One of them pushed the door open, and the resident stepped back to avoid being hit. The officer came inside and stationed himself in front of the door, outstretching his arms to block anyone from leaving, dropping them only momentarily to allow his fellow officer inside. The resident’s wife and son came running into the living room.
The second officer asked where the front door led. He left, and two more came: a male, armed, and a female. In English, they questioned the resident about his immigration status; his 12-year-old son translated, and the resident gave the officers his documentation. While one of the officers questioned him, another tried to open the door to his cousin’s room, but it was locked. The officer hit the door with his hand and feet, damaging the lock. But the cousin was not inside; he had left for work at 6 a.m. that morning.
The officer went into the bedroom of the resident’s live-in nephew, who was 22 and still in bed with his girlfriend. “Where is Chavez?” an agent yelled at them. The 22-year-old said he did not know anyone named Chavez. The agent ordered him and his girlfriend out of bed, handcuffed them and led them into the living room. His uncle, too, was handcuffed.
Officer Richard McCaffrey, who has worked in immigration enforcement for 15 years, was initially outside the house on Peck Street, then entered the back door and interacted with some of the occupants. At no time, he would later tell a court, did he see any unnecessary force or any officer enter without permission.
“There is another side here,” McCaffrey said in an interview at his office in Hartford. But, he added, the matter is still ongoing, and the litigation is still pending, and as a field officer he is not authorized to speak to the press at all. He said he regretted seeing Immigration and Customs Enforcement get beat up in the press without the agency being able to defend itself, to tell its side of the story.
“I would love to,” he said. “But I can’t.”
In all, seven people were arrested on Peck Street, four more of whom came into Teresa Gonzalez Vala’s van, making 13 inside. They were squeezed in, some of them literally sitting on top of each other. Teresa felt fortunate she didn’t have anyone on her lap because the pain in her bladder was intense as it was; she still had not had a chance to relieve herself.
The van left Peck Street, got on Interstate 95 and pulled into the parking lot of a closed tollbooth off exit 42 in West Haven, where a big white bus was waiting. The detainees from all the vans were being transferred to the bus to be taken to Hartford for processing. There was an agent, a man, who spoke Spanish, so Teresa told him, “If you don’t take me to a bathroom, I’m going to pee on the bus.” It was now 9:30 a.m.
The agent took her and another woman to a bathroom near the parking lot. He went into the bathroom with them, and Teresa asked him to take off her handcuffs so she could use the toilet. He refused. So the two women, complete strangers, went into the stall together and took turns: One pulled down the other’s pants, and she used the toilet, but with her hands tied in front of her she wasn’t able to wipe. Then the other pulled her pants back up, and then they switched. When they were finished, the officer didn’t let them wash their hands before bringing them back to the bus.
The men and women had to sit on different sides of the bus, separated by bars. Their handcuffs were removed, replaced instead with metal chains that tied their wrists, waists and legs. Cirilo Sedeño Trujillo, trying to keep up his spirits, joked to himself that the shackles made him walk like a penguin. As the bus took off, the chained passengers leaned with every turn, unable to brace themselves, unable even to scratch their noses.
But Amilcar — he has no idea how — could somehow reach the cell phone he had smuggled aboard, and he called Angelo Reyes and Norma Franceschi, the Fair Haven proprietors and community leaders. “I’m telling you, there are like 20 people here,” Amilcar told him. Norma and Angelo wanted to know who they were. The detainees started passing the phone around, bending over as much to hide the phone as to reach their ear while their hands were bound. Angelo, Norma and Father Jim Manship of St. Rose of Lima Church relayed the names to Community Services Administrator Kica Matos until the phone’s battery ran out.
As people started calling Matos back with information, she wanted to pass it along to Michael Wishnie, a professor at Yale Law School who ran a clinic that works on immigration cases. His secretary told Matos he was out of town, so she left an emergency message. He called her back within an hour, and she told him what had happened and asked him to represent the detainees.
When the bus arrived at the garage beneath the Department of Removal Operations office in Hartford, the detainees were taken into the elevator and up to the top floor to be photographed and fingerprinted. Their hands were released from the chains but their legs remained tied.
One of the agents, a Puerto Rican, gave Amilcar a form to sign, but he couldn’t read it in English. The ICE agent spoke Spanish, but would not translate the form, instead insisting that Amilcar sign it. If he didn’t, the agent said he would do it for him and Amilcar would spend a long time in jail. Amilcar refused to sign what he could not read.
At 10 p.m., he was transferred to the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility, a private center outside Providence, R.I. Cirilo and Luis went with him. The detainees were scattered across three other jails throughout New England: Suffolk County Jail in Boston, Cumberland County Jail in Maine and Franklin County Jail in Greenfield, Mass.
But first, some of the women spent the night in Hartford. There was no bed in the cold holding cell where Teresa and three other women were held, so they slept in the fetal position on the cement floor. There was a toilet, but no privacy from either the other women or the male guard walking by on patrol until another guard, a woman, brought them a sheet that they could hold up to block the view. Sitting on the floor and crying, the four cell-mates, though formerly strangers, hugged each other, as much for comfort as for warmth. Teresa thought she would be there for a long time.
Word of the raid broke in the local press in the late morning of June 6. By noon it was crawling across the news ticker in Times Square.
“This was a symbolic act of law enforcement by an agency that is not able to control its mission or how it executes its responsibilities. This was an act of intimidation,” Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said through clenched teeth, his face lighted by flashbulbs and the patchy afternoon sun poking through the shady canopy of Wooster Square Park at 4 p.m. In the heart of the city’s historic Italian-American neighborhood, he stood before a podium saddled with six microphones, flanked by community, religious and political, saying the immigration agents had “terrorized” Fair Haven.
While Matos was organizing the city’s response in the field, DeStefano was calling the New Haven police and Connecticut’s congressional delegation, asking them to help him get through to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He wanted to know what the federal agents were doing and why they were doing it, and he wanted it to stop.
By evening on June 6, Wishnie’s team of law students had compiled a working list of the 29 detainees, whose friends and relatives met with the lawyers at Father Manship’s church to confirm the identities of the detainees and to describe the raids.
The lawyers drew up bond motions for all the detainees, but they could not file them without an alien registration number, which they could not get without contacting the detainees. So they could not contact them without the number, and they could not get the number until they contacted them. It was a catch-22.
The morning after, on June 7, the guards brought Teresa Gonzalez Vala a ham sandwich, an apple and a small carton of milk. Teresa had been so anxious that she had forgotten to feel hunger; only now, as she wolfed down her breakfast, did she realize it was the first thing she had eaten in at least 30 hours. She didn’t know exactly what time it was because the cell had no window.
Then she was chained up again, taken down to the garage and put in a van. She didn’t know where she was going until she started noticing all the Massachusetts plates on the other cars and saw a big road sign for Boston.
At the Suffolk County Jail, medical examiners administered a blood test, gave Teresa a TB shot and took a urine sample. The results showed that she had developed a urinary infection, she thinks from holding it in and not being able to wipe the day before. They prescribed an antibiotic, but Teresa could not pick up the prescription without an ID, which she didn’t have. Until the lawyers intervened and got her the medicine three or four days later, she felt a burn whenever she had to urinate.
The law students repeatedly tried to request the alien registration numbers from ICE but were denied or ignored. So the students began calling every prison in New England in search of the detainees, until one law student phoned Wyatt, where several of them were being held, and the guard, unaware that ICE had been withholding the alien numbers, provided them.
Once all the detainees were transferred to prisons, they were able to call their families, who passed on their whereabouts to people at Junta, who passed it along to the lawyers. It took two to five days to locate the detainees, days when friends and families had no idea where they were being held or if they had already been deported. It was a full week before the last detainee had been identified.
Within the first week, four of the detainees posted bond, which was set at $15,000 for the 26 without criminal records and $25,000 for the three with criminal backgrounds. Most of the money was raised by extended families, and many employers also chipped in. John Lugo went door-to-door in Fair Haven asking for donations. One family brought $25,000 in small bills and coins to Father Manship, who counted it out in front of them, took it to the bank to get a cashier’s check and then drove to Hartford to post the bail.
After 10 days, Norma Franceschi drove to Hartford with Teresa’s bail money. She got to the office at 10 a.m. and waited until 4 p.m., when she was told that Teresa would be freed from the jail in Boston in one hour.
“I can’t get there in one hour,” Norma protested, knowing Boston was 100 miles away.
“Well, if you don’t pick her up, she will be homeless,” Norma was told.
Teresa was released but told if she loitered outside the jails she would be rearrested, so she started walking around the block, scared of running into officers and scared of the bleak neighborhood she was lost in.
Finally, strangers came in an old red minivan to pick up her and another woman. There had been another family in the Hartford office that was also going to the Suffolk jail, so Norma had asked if they would also pick up Teresa.
She got back to Atwater Street at 11 p.m. The other four who had been arrested were still in jail. But the rest of her family was there. They hugged and cried. But these were different tears than those Teresa had shed in jail. She thanked God she was home.
When DeStefano spoke to Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, a few days after the raid, he wanted assurance that any more raids planned for New Haven would be called off. Chertoff told the mayor he couldn’t declare New Haven, or anywhere else, an enforcement-free zone. DeStefano countered that the New Haven police are happy to help enforce the law where warrants are presented, but, the mayor said, that’s not what happened June 6.
But in a June 14 letter to Connecticut’s congressional representatives, Chertoff said ICE’s policy is not to conduct raids or enforce the law ad hoc. Rather, he said, the agency targets specific fugitives in specific locations. Although only five of the 29 arrested on June 6 were the targets of the raids, he said the others were arrested at the targeted locations.
Asking for identifying information or for a form of identification does not violate constitutional protections on search and seizure, he added, although detaining someone for further questioning requires “reasonable suspicion” that the person has committed a crime or is an illegal alien.
The ICE agents never entered a home without consent, Chertoff wrote. To ensure that the residents understood, he said each team included a Spanish-speaking officer. All the residents were brought into a common area for the officers’ safety, he said, which is standard law-enforcement procedure. Family members were provided the address and telephone number of the local ICE office to inquire about those arrested. The officers asked if there were any medical conditions, childcare issues or other humanitarian concerns, and they did not arrest children or leave any children alone without a parent or caregiver. In one instance, Chertoff said, officers stayed with an 11-year-old left home alone until the parents returned.
In August 2007, one of the detainees, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, was deported, leaving his wife and two children in the United States. Five others opted for voluntary deportation, which lets them apply to re-enter after three years instead of 10; they left over the spring and summer of 2008. Twelve of the 29 cases are closed. Seventeen moved ahead with motions to suppress; the government won 11 of them, and the Yale Law School clinic is appealing. On the other six, the judge in Hartford, Michael Straus, shifted the burden of proof to the government to justify the arrests.
In January 2009, Straus called on the ICE agents who conducted the raid to testify. They have so far refused to appear in court. Their names have been redacted from all documents released to the public through Freedom of Information Act requests filed by Junta and Wishnie’s clinic at the Yale Law School.
This reporter’s calls to the Hartford ICE office were redirected to a press officer in Boston named Paula Grenier. Starting in April, she did not respond to a dozen attempts to request interviews, by e-mail and by voice messages on her office and cell phones. In late May, she replied, “ICE does not comment on matters pending before a court.” At that time, 17 of the 29 cases were still pending; requests for interviews about the other 12 cases that were not pending were ignored another 10 times. In July, her supervisor, Michael W. Gilhooly, repeated: “ICE does not comment on matters pending before a court.” An appeal to the press office in Washington was referred back to Grenier.
In June, Judge Straus ruled on four more of the detainees, saying their Fourth Amendment rights were “flagrantly” violated when agents entered their homes “without a warrant, probable cause, or consent.” The agents’ conduct, he wrote, was “unreasonable” and “unlawful.” He also impugned the ICE agents for refusing to testify and said the court could not give much weight to the officers’ scant affidavits, which left out relevant information and denied the opportunity for cross-examination. “This due process requires,” he wrote.
Two cases are still awaiting a decision, and the government is appealing the four most recent rulings in the immigrants’ favor. But at the same time the government has moved to close out the era of immigration enforcement that was marked by raids such as the one in New Haven. It is a dramatic shift, in policy and practice, from the tactics on display June 6, 2007.
The new model was demonstrated this past July with Los Angeles-based clothier American Apparel, which apparently employs some 1,800 illegal immigrants. But no agents stormed the factories or pulled people out of bed; instead, ICE sent the company a written notice that it could be fined and must fire undocumented workers.
But the damage from the old approach cannot be undone.
In the 10 days she was imprisoned, Teresa Gonzalez Vala lost both of her jobs, and it was a month before she could find another, mostly because she was afraid to leave the house. She had trouble sleeping and tried to distract herself by watching TV but couldn’t really concentrate even on that. She stayed inside for 10 days, and the first time she ventured outside to look for a job, she saw a white van and ran back home.
For more than a month while Teresa was in jail or out of work, she had no money to send back to her teenage daughter and ailing parents in Mexico. Without her support, her father couldn’t afford his diabetes medication. He died a month later, in August 2007.
The following October, Junta hosted a support group for 16 children who had been affected by the raids four months earlier. Sandra Trevino, Junta’s director and a social worker who specializes in children’s mental health, led the session. Eleven of the children had witnessed the raids, and the parents of two more had been arrested.
As Trevino evaluated them, she observed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. They had nightmares of knocks on the door, were afraid to sleep because they thought their parents wouldn’t be there in the morning, or were afraid to go to school because they thought their parents wouldn’t be there to pick them up at night. They lost sleep and lost their appetites.
At the workshop, the children participated in an art class, making collages of the ocean, using shells and real sand and little paper umbrellas, even though they had never seen a real beach. The session ended at the Yale Polo and Horse Stables, where Trevino took the children horseback riding, which they had never done before. Perhaps there, on the grassy fields of Yale’s sprawling athletic complex, the children could imagine themselves as Ivy League scholar-athletes in white helmets and breeches. Perhaps there, as Trevino hoped, the children could learn how to be gentle, because even a beast as big as a horse scares and recoils when startled by a sudden advance.