Illegal Immigrants Freed, Still Face Uncertain Futures

Tania E. Lopez, Indianapolis Star, April 21, 2006

With no prospects for work in Mexico, Arturo Cuagtle figured he had two choices: turn to robbery or leave his family and emigrate north.

So, seven years ago, he left Mexico for Indiana. He was working at IFCO Systems on Wednesday, assembling wooden pallets for 30 cents apiece, he said, when federal agents arrived and began arresting people.

A 27-year-old illegal immigrant, he was one of 38 men arrested at the Southside plant as part of a nationwide crackdown. On Thursday, all but one of the men had been released, Cuagtle among them.

The men were processed and scheduled for court appearances. One man found to have a criminal background was kept in custody. The raid netted 24 people from Mexico and 14 from Guatemala.

Cuagtle did not expect to go back to working at IFCO but hoped to find another job as a janitor.

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More than half of the company’s roughly 5,800 U.S. employees had invalid or mismatched Social Security numbers during 2005, the government says. More than 1,100 people were arrested at more than 40 IFCO sites nationwide Wednesday.

The case began after officials got a tip that IFCO workers in Guilderland, N.Y., were seen ripping up their W-2 forms because they did not intend to file tax returns.

Seven current and former IFCO managers charged with felony conspiracy to harbor illegal immigrants were released on bond and are to appear May 4 in Albany, N.Y., where the criminal complaint was filed.

The managers could face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each illegal immigrant involved, as well as forfeitures.

“Just a small fine or a slap on the wrist is not a deterrent,” Julie Myers, assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said.

As for the workers, immigration officials said they did not have the facilities to hold them indefinitely.

With 20,000 detention beds nationwide, Immigration and Customs spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said the agency has to prioritize. It focuses on holding illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds. She said the system is not set up to detain every immigrant found to be in the country illegally.

“We need to conserve our detention space for illegal aliens that are dangerous criminals or who have been previously deported,” Montenegro said.

If the arrested men don’t show up at their hearings at a Chicago immigration court, a judge will order them deported in absentia, she said, and they will be classified as fugitives.

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