Teodoro Aguiluz, executive director of CRECEN, center, and Eva Bernal, right, speak during a news conference, Wednesday about a raid that took place the previous day in Houston. Federal agents raided the tortilla factory, La Espiga de Oro at 1200 15th Street near Shepherd. Agents with Homeland Security and the Department of Labor served a criminal search warrant at the business, detaining 11 workers from the factory at the scene. (Cody Duty / Houston Chronicle)
Since 1977, Alfredo and Lydia Lira have run a tortilla factory in the Heights, growing it into a company that has boasted national accounts with McDonald’s and even, at one point, supplied fresh tortillas for NASA’s shuttle flights.
But a day after agents raided La Espiga de Oro, briefly detaining 10 people suspected of being here illegally, its owners remained silent about what could have instigated the search warrant filed by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor.
The daylight raid of a workplace, which has become largely passé under the Obama administration, alarmed the immigrant community, following a separate four-day operation in the Dallas area in July that resulted in 27 arrests of immigrants with criminal convictions. It’s all fueled rumors and widespread unease, and on Wednesday immigrant advocates urged residents to report any enforcement activity to a hotline so they can alert the community and send legal assistance.
“These people should not be a priority,” said Marta Ojeda, executive director of the Fe y Justicia Worker Center, a non-profit representing low-wage workers, referring to the president’s announcement last year promising to focus on deporting criminals, not separating families. She urged immigrants to call the center at 713-862-8222 and said it would blast out tips on social media.
‘It sends shock waves’
Advocates said the last big workplace raid they recall in Houston occurred in 2008, when immigration officials descended on a second-hand clothing company in southeast Houston, arresting more than 160 employees. The owner and two managers of Action Rags USA were convicted in 2009 of harboring immigrants here illegally.
That same year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced a shift away from sweeping up illegal immigrants in high-profile work site enforcement raids, a hallmark of the final years of the Bush administration. Instead, the agency said it would focus on targeting employers for their hiring practices, forcing thousands of U.S. businesses to open up their books to investigators to ensure they were verifying their eligibility.
“It’s definitely out of the norm,” said Cesar Espinosa, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group FIEL Houston. “It sends shock waves in the community. Our phone has been ringing off the hook.”
Greg Palmore, a spokesman for ICE in Houston, said the La Espiga de Oro raid is part of an ongoing investigation but declined to provide more details. He said the agency granted employment authorization to seven of the 10 detained workers, allowing them to work here legally for up to one year because they are “material witnesses.” It’s unusual for ICE to grant work permits in such circumstances, but Palmore noted the immigrants “have to be able to work and survive while we retain them as witnesses.”
Three others didn’t qualify, though he declined to say why citing privacy reasons. No one was detained for deportation.
The Liras didn’t return calls, and a woman in the factory’s office at 1202 W 15th St. said they weren’t available but that the factory was running as normal. Court records indicate that at times during the past decade the once multimillion-dollar company has struggled with money.
In 2008, the owners sued their accountant, accusing him of not informing them of the “deteriorating financial condition of their businesses,” and not disclosing “certain material information.”
The parties later agreed to dismiss the suit, and their lawyers declined to comment. Also that same year, the couple sued a nephew, their director of operations. They said he “misappropriated” assets for personal use. The couple filed to dismiss the suit, and none of the lawyers returned calls.
‘Everyone is in a panic’
Palmore said the search warrant is sealed, and more searches would be based on information gathered during the raid. But the incident, and an unrelated one in Dallas, has stoked fears of immigration checkpoints across the region, which ICE denies.
In Dallas, ICE agents said the operation was ongoing, routine work focused on immigrants who have already been convicted of crimes and have served their sentences, thereby falling into the agency’s priorities for removal as redefined by President Barack Obama last year to target serious criminals. Nevertheless, only two of the 27 detained had been convicted of more than misdemeanors, according to an ICE news release.
“We don’t go into neighborhoods, randomly searching door-to-door looking for people illegally in the U.S.,” said Carl Rusnok, a spokesman for ICE in Dallas. “We have specific individuals we are looking for, and we have locations and good reason to believe they’re located there.”
Still, news of the targeted house-by-house search spread on social media, with Tuesday’s Heights operation only escalating the hysteria. Raed Gonzalez, an immigration attorney who has a weekly Spanish radio show, said his website crashed and half the clients he saw Wednesday were inquiring how to prepare for citywide raids.
“Everyone is in a panic,” he said.
The ongoing legal wrangling over an Obama program that would have granted work permits to nearly 5 million immigrants here illegally has made the community feel insecure, said Abraham Espinosa, director of community protection at FIEL. The political rhetoric over the last month once again making immigration a talking point and a spate of questionable deaths involving law enforcement officials and minorities has also increased tension, he said.
“Right now there’s especially a feeling of distrust with the law enforcement community,” he said.