Breaking the silence in a middle-class enclave of tract homes and cul-de-sacs in St. Michael, federal immigration agents recently swooped...

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ST. MICHAEL, Minn. — Breaking the silence in a middle-class enclave of tract homes and cul-de-sacs in St. Michael, federal immigration agents recently swooped in and grabbed Sara Muñoz, carting away the illegal Mexican immigrant before her five crying U.S.-born children.

In nearby Minneapolis, activist Juana Reyes was nabbed for her illegal status as she stepped out of her car, spurring a rapidly transforming neighborhood into action on behalf of her 9-year-old daughter, a U.S. citizen.

And, 110 miles south in Austin, Minn., Latin American immigrants are afraid to open their doors, while longtime residents press the mayor to do more to stop the changes in a town built around the headquarters of the Hormel Foods meatpacking operation.

Similar scenes nationwide are part of a ramping up of federal arrests of illegal immigrants, activity Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff recently warned is “gonna get ugly” after federal immigration legislation failed last month.

Arrests from workplace raids have skyrocketed from about 845 in 2004 to nearly 4,000 this year, federal records show. Arrests of illegal immigrants who have ignored court orders to leave the country have doubled since last year to a rate of about 685 a week.

“We’re gonna do more enforcement actions,” Chertoff said recently, lamenting Congress’ failure to move immigration overhaul forward and predicting extensive grief. “And, if they have kids at home, even if we make arrangements with social services to take care of the kids, the kids are gonna be scared because Mommy or Daddy is not coming home that day.”

Though the arrests will be “as humane as possible,” Chertoff said, “We do have to get control over this general problem of illegal immigration.”

The heightened enforcement has fueled tensions in fast-changing areas of Minnesota, where jobs in meatpacking plants, factories and farms have made the state a magnet for new immigrants from Africa, Southeast Asia and, especially, Latin America.

Enforcement “tsunami”

As state legislatures and cities nationwide consider local measures for enforcement, a menacing cloud has swelled over the nation’s immigrant landscape, advocates say.

“We have a tsunami coming at us in terms of enforcement measures,” said Angela Kelly, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant-advocacy group in Washington. “That’s pretty terrifying in terms of what it means for the 12 million undocumented immigrants and their families.”

Both sides of the immigration debate, however, see advantages in the hardening climate.

“We want them … looking over their shoulders all the time,” said Marlene Nelson, 63, a member of the Minnesota Coalition for Immigration Reduction, among scores of such groups pushing for more enforcement.

Advocates for illegal immigrants characterize the arrests as a necessary “low” that could revive a legalization movement.

“There are a lot of people who don’t want to see people treated badly, but there’s a need for them to see that,” said Kelly, predicting it would strengthen citizenship drives. “That kind of fear as a motivator, that needs to be ramped up and that needs to be tapped.”

Among the glistening Minnesota lakes that remind him of his native El Salvador, Nixon Muñoz, 36, believed his family was safe.

In 1990, Muñoz, a former government soldier who won political asylum after fleeing his civil-war-ravaged country, moved from Los Angeles after learning there were plenty of jobs in Minnesota. Working as a machinist for a box manufacturer, he met a shy Mexican woman visiting on a tourist visa to attend a wedding.

The couple fell in love and married; Sara Muñoz’s visa expired as the two planned for a family and the home they eventually bought outside Minneapolis. They had three daughters and a son, and then came Edwin, now 4, who is autistic. Sara Muñoz cared for him between shifts at a local dry-cleaning company.

“It was a nice life,” Nixon Muñoz said. “We were very content.”

That changed last month. Arriving from the grocery with his children, Muñoz said, he saw his terrified wife handcuffed in front of their home. With the family in tears, she was taken away and, eventually, deported to Mexico, where she tries to parent her children through long-distance calls.

The couple’s eldest daughter, Joanna, 14, has stepped in as a mother figure. She cooks, cleans and tries to comfort Edwin when he calls for his mother at night.

Activists in training

The impact such arrests and deportation have on the estimated 5 million children of illegal immigrants in the United States is troubling, said Randy Capps, a researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington who has been studying the aftermath of raids in several states.

Many of these children are likely to grow up harboring resentment against law enforcement. Others will have psychological problems, he said.

Such worries have fueled the reaction to the arrest of Juana Reyes, 52, a soft-spoken activist from Mexico known for her work helping new immigrants. Arrested July 9, Reyes is inside a county jail in Elk River, one of some 26,500 illegal immigrants imprisoned nationwide on a given day, according to a recent report by the federal Government Accountability Office. Reyes is awaiting deportation.

Reyes’ daughter, Betty Reyes, 9, tries to shrug off the experience. Occasionally, however, the facade crumbles and she will not let anyone answer the door, friends and family said.

Her experience has inspired plans for a “children’s march” in the neighborhood clustered near a row of Mexican restaurants and shops that began sprouting along the Lake Street business corridor in the 1990s.

“We’re training the children now to become activists,” said Mariano Espinoza, director of the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network. “They are going to take this movement to the next level.”

Inside his office in Austin, organizer Victor Contreras longed for such optimism. Since a raid last month when federal agents pulled some 20 immigrants from their homes and others in which hundreds more were captured in neighboring towns, “the community is consumed by fear,” Contreras said. “Nobody wants to open their doors.”

Some evidence of that could be heard two doors away, at the public library. Inside a meeting room, about 20 longtime residents harangued Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm, who won his job last fall on an immigration-enforcement platform.

Many in the room pinned the steady arrival of mostly Mexican immigrants to Austin on a yearlong strike at Hormel during the mid-1980s, when the company known best for making Spam broke the local union.

Well-paying union jobs were given to immigrants willing to work cheaply, residents said. That sparked a transformation now seen along Main Street, where Hormel’s Spam Museum sits a short distance from the Mi Tierra restaurant and several other Mexican-themed businesses.

“What are you going to do about it, Tom?” one resident shouted, complaining with others about crime, overcrowded housing and the formation of a non-English-speaking society.

Shrugging, Stiehm promised to make arrests in cases of welfare fraud and other crimes. “I’m going to go after the lawbreakers and leave the families alone, the ones that want to be a part of Austin,” the mayor said. “You can’t just get rid of them all. If you did, we’d lose 7,000 people, we’d be closing down our schools.”