The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service raided two Annapolis apartment complexes before dawn yesterday, arresting 23 inhabitants and deporting them to Latin America as early as last night.
The operation, called "Bag and Baggage," targeted immigrants who had applied for legal residency but were turned down by the INS and didn't obey federal deportation orders, said John F. O'Malley, assistant district director of detention and deportation at the INS in Baltimore.
"They basically have no equity left," Mr. O'Malley said. "We pick them and their bags up, to be immediately removed from the United States."
Nine armed agents banged on residents' doors at the Allen Apartments in the 2000 block of Allen Drive and Admiral Farragut Apartments on Hilltop Lane about 5 a.m. They demanded to see inhabitants' green cards or other proof of legal residency, Mr. O'Malley said.
Within two hours, agents had arrested nine El Salvadorans, eight Mexicans and six Hondurans, he said.
One immigrant was sent to Mexico on a commercial airplane last night. The others were being held in an INS detention center in Arbutus in Baltimore County and are to be sent back to Latin America in the coming days, he said.
Tenants of the Allen Apartments described a chaotic scene yesterday, offering details that conflicted with the INS account.
The tenants said the agents arrived as early as 3:30 a.m., cursed at residents and would not allow a man who had been stabbed in the shoulder to stay in his apartment and recover. Bewildered residents hid in their apartments, crying and trembling during the two hours that INS agents filtered through the complex, tenants said.
Amner Cardona Mendez, 19, said he had returned home from his night job at Mike's restaurant in Riva and had been asleep for about 1 1/2 hours when he heard commotion in the other rooms, where his two friends were sleeping. When the noise subsided, Mr. Mendez emerged and found one of his roommates gone, along with a suitcase full of the man's possessions. Mr. Mendez feared he would be next.
"I was so scared because I got my child and who's going to pay child support for my baby? They're not going to take me," he said.
Mr. Mendez, who moved to the United States from Guatemala two years ago, said he is a legal immigrant with a Social Security card, but he fears the INS would disregard such documents and send him back to a country where he never felt safe. "Maybe they say, 'No good paper,' " he said.
Mr. Mendez prizes a framed picture of his 18-month-old daughter, Jolanda, in his limited cache of belongings. He took the picture and its frame, decorated with the words "I Love My Mommy" and fled Allen Apartments early yesterday morning, fearing the agents would be back.
O'Malley said the agents may have spoken sternly to large groups of people, but insisted that they never cursed. He said the man who had been stabbed was allowed to see a doctor at the detention center. If anything, he said, the incident was "very calm."
"They were even singing songs on the bus," Mr. O'Malley said, adding that INS agents served the immigrants orange juice and fried egg sandwiches.
He also said agents would pick up any paychecks owed them and send the checks and up to 44 pounds of their personal belongings to the immigrants at no charge.
The Annapolis operation was the biggest ever at Allen and Admiral Farragut apartments and unusually large for any raid. Usually, INS agents arrest one person at a time, Mr. O'Malley said.
The raid was one in a series of raids planned by the INS in Maryland in the coming weeks to spend a portion of the office's remaining budget dollars before the end of the fiscal year Oct. 1, he said.
The deportations came after repeated warnings and requests for the immigrants to surrender, Mr. O'Malley said.
"Once they were denied by the U.S. government, they were in essence fair game," said Joseph Trevino, a Greenbelt lawyer who represents many Latinos in cases. "The risk of not getting political asylum or a work permit is, (INS agents) already know who you are."
Some residents at Allen Apartments were surprised and saddened by the raid.
"They took all the people," said Braulio Cruz Flores, who added that he has a green card and nothing to worry about. Mr. Cruz, who calls himself "a hard-working man," has been in the United States for 18 years.
It was disheartening to see so many countrymen being sent to El Salvador, where "there is no work, no money to buy food to eat or clothes," he said.
"It's not good. We are all human. We all have a right to life," he said.
James Cruz, also from El Salvador, said all the tenants were "trying to make money."
He said he has no fear of immigration officers because he is a legal resident, but "lots of people who don't have papers have to be scared."