A Latino man who was detained in a controversial 2007 law enforcement raid that swept up illegal immigrants at a 7-Eleven parking lot in Upper Fells Point is suing federal authorities, alleging he was mistreated and arrested without cause.
The suit was filed on behalf of just one person — 32-year-old Denis Alvarez of Southeast Baltimore — but an attorney with an immigrant advocacy group that crafted the suit said it is meant as an indictment against the raid in which two dozen men were arrested. The suit seeks a half-million dollars in damages.
The January raid at the store on Broadway angered and frightened Baltimore's Latino community, and members of Casa de Maryland accused federal immigration agents of racial profiling. A subsequent newspaper article reported that the raid's location and timing were designed to boost arrest stats for the Baltimore field office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In an interview in Spanish at his Baltimore home Friday, Alvarez hesitated discussing specifics of the incident or his case. "The truth is that they grabbed me unjustly," he said, adding, "Whatever happens, happens. The rest, God only can tell."
Alvarez argues in the suit that he was standing apart from a larger group of men seeking work from a private contractor and was unfairly swept up in a raid that targeted the others. "The ICE officers falsely arrested and falsely imprisoned [Alvarez] … without reasonable suspicion or probable cause of illegal activity," the suit says.
Cori Bassett, an ICE spokeswoman in Washington, declined to address the lawsuit when reached by phone Friday. "We don't comment on pending litigation," she said.
At the time of the raid, authorities said immigrants were not targeted and the arrests were not planned. Instead, officers were searching for one illegal immigrant who had been ordered out of the country by a judge but failed to comply, an ICE spokesman said in 2007. Of the 24 men arrested, the spokesman said, six had criminal records, eight had been previously removed, and one had been caught six times crossing the border.
The suit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore by lawyers with the Immigrant Justice Center, which uses student attorneys to help immigrants on a wide range of issues. The center is based at American University's Washington College of Law.
Elizabeth Keyes, the center's practitioner-in-residence, said the lawsuit "is meant to reflect on the entire operation. There was a sense of injustice for all men who were picked up in the raid" that she said was "based on the faulty assumption that people looking for work are undocumented."
Keyes said the lawsuit took time to draw up because various administrative remedies had to be exhausted before going to court. By the time the suit was filed, most of the other men who had been arrested had been deported or could no longer be located, she said.
The raid was in line with government policies at the time that encouraged sweeps of workplaces and locations where illegal immigrants congregated looking for day labor jobs. An ICE spokesman told The Baltimore Sun in 2007 that agents had been searching for wanted fugitives who were in the country illegally, but that "in the course of doing business, they don't ignore other illegal aliens."
The Obama administration has since discouraged such raids, preferring to target large workplaces and employers.
In a brief interview Friday, Alvarez declined to provide his country of origin and his immigration status. Keyes also would not divulge the information, nor would she describe the status of his immigration case stemming from the 2007 arrest.
On a form filed in court as part of his civil suit, Alvarez wrote "0" and "N/A" to a long series of questions asking about his employment and finances. "My mother provides me with food, housing, and other basic expenses free of charge," he wrote.
Alvarez, wearing a brown Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt and a black hat, said he had been rounded up "by pure chance." He and about 100 others went to the convenience store looking for work, though Alvarez said he was waiting for a man who had promised to hire him as a painter.
The man failed to show because his car had broken down, Alvarez said, so he decided to go home. He ducked into the 7-Eleven to get a cup of coffee. "I was already thinking that there wouldn't be any work that day," he said.
Alvarez said that when he emerged, a van appeared and the men inside asked the crowd for "10 of each," meaning painters, bricklayers, masons and other construction workers.
In the lawsuit, Alvarez said he became suspicious of the offer and walked away. As he stepped off the parking lot, the suit says, a second vehicle blocked his exit and men emerged from the car and the van wearing holstered guns and vests emblazoned with the words "Police."
The suit says agents ordered the men to sit on a curb and that one agent "forcefully grabbed and touched" Alvarez "around the collar" and forced him to sit down. He was taken into custody, held for two to three days in the Dorchester County jail on the Eastern Shore and released on $10,000 bail.
"He occasionally has nightmares reliving his encounters with the ICE officers," the suit says. Alvarez alleges that he was falsely arrested, falsely imprisoned and assaulted.
The Washington Post reported in 2009 that the raid was done to boost statistics for the Baltimore ICE field office, which had been lagging behind other offices.
The article noted that the ICE team had been searching for illegal immigrants considered fugitives from justice, and that a series of weekend raids in Montgomery and Prince George's counties had been largely unsuccessful in helping to meet an annual quota of 1,000 arrests per team.
"I don't care where you get more arrests, we need more numbers," The Post quoted from a summary of an internal investigation. The article said that 14 of the 24 people arrested in Baltimore that day were not fugitives.