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Ariz. town's effort to round up illegal aliens spurs lawsuits Legal residents, citizens mistakenly targeted by police operation


CHANDLER, Ariz. -- The city fathers of this fast-growing Phoenix suburb had a plan to create a bright and shining center to their community, a downtown worthy of the self-proclaimed capital of "the Silicon Desert."

The police department took the first step, with what soon became known as "the roundup," an apt term for a place where cattle live side by side with the factories of high-tech giants Intel Corp. and Motorola Inc. A plan to clear the city of illegal immigrants, the July 1997 roundup was a resounding success -- and a plan gone horribly wrong.

City officials realized too late that their five-day operation was targeting scores of legal residents and U.S. citizens who happened to "look Mexican," according to witnesses. The resulting controversy tinged with ethnic overtones has consumed Chandler since.

The raid was one of dozens of similar actions that has been taken by authorities in Southwestern and Rocky Mountain boom towns, where an explosion of Latino immigration has dramatically transformed the social milieu.

"They just can't stop people based on looks," said Phoenix attorney Stephen Montoya, who has filed a $35 million lawsuit against the city. "They thought the Hispanic community would not unite against this, but we did."

In mid-December, the Chandler city manager officially reprimanded Police Chief Bobby Joe Harris for the way he conducted the raid, while a group of Latino activists launched a recall against the mayor and two city council members.

To the dismay of leaders in this city of 143,000, the drama has taken on a life of its own. The next chapter may come in February in a federal courtroom in Phoenix, when opening arguments are scheduled in Montoya's civil rights suit. At the same time, the Arizona Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold hearings. The U.S. Border Patrol is conducting an internal investigation.

A spokesman for the police department declined to comment on the operation because of the pending lawsuit. In a written statement, Chandler Mayor Jay Tibshraeny echoed the findings of the city's investigation, saying the operation was flawed and officers were not properly trained to carry out complex immigration laws. He called for a "cultural diversity training program" for the department.

"It's going to take 10, 15 years for people to feel comfortable in Chandler again," said Ed Delci, a Latino native of the city and plaintiff in the civil rights lawsuit, although he was not detained during the raid. "Reparations have to be made."

Chandler was once a resort for snow-weary Midwesterners, and then a farm town where irrigation turned the desert green with cotton and other crops. Later, it became another in a line of bedroom communities swallowed by the spreading grid of greater Phoenix. After the techno-boom of the 1990s spurred a dozen subdivisions, Chandler had become, in effect, two cities: an affluent sprawl of cul-de-sacs that made Chandler one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation and the old, impoverished downtown.

City officials concluded that illegal immigration -- and the resulting crowding -- was partly to blame for the city center's decay and crime.

Operation Restoration began July 27, 1997. What happened over the next five days has been dissected in two investigations released by the Arizona attorney general's office and the city.

Both inquiries agree that the joint operation was a dramatic event that saw two dozen police officers and five Border Patrol agents fan out across downtown, sometimes chasing suspected illegal immigrants from work sites, and then filling up buses with detained people.

In all, the police held and eventually deported 432 illegal immigrants, all but three of them from Mexico.

As the police questioned people leaving markets patronized by Latinos, they invariably encountered U.S. citizens. Venecia Robles Zavala, a resident of nearby Mesa, said she was stopped outside a grocery store as she was leaving with her children.

She was disciplining her son, in Spanish, when an officer stopped her and asked for her papers.

"What papers?" Zavala responded in English. "Newspapers?"

"No," the officer said. "Immigration papers."

Four months after the raid, Arizona Attorney General Grant Hill released the results of his inquiry. The Chandler police, the report concluded, had stopped residents and had entered the homes of suspected illegal immigrants without warrants "for no other reason than their skin color or Mexican appearance or the use of the Spanish language."

More, city officials had failed to request formal permission from the U.S. attorney general to pursue such an action, as required by a 1996 federal law.

Pub Date: 12/29/98

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