Dark Days for Fla. Immigrants: "Fears Now Cloud the Most Basic Routines"

The Times' obvious sympathy for illegal immigrants, and its contempt for tougher border-enforcement tactics, showed up on Monday's front page in the off-lead story by Damien Cave, "Local Officials Adopt New, Harder Tactics On Illegal Immigrants." Cave saw a local crackdown in Milton, Fla., as a disturbing sign that will lessen the town, making it a bastion of fear and suspicion.

Three months after the local police inspected more than a dozen businesses searching for illegal immigrants using stolen Social Security numbers, this community in the Florida Panhandle has become more law-abiding, emptier and whiter.

Many of the Hispanic immigrants who came in 2004 to help rebuild after Hurricane Ivan have either fled or gone into hiding. Churches with services in Spanish are half-empty. Businesses are struggling to find workers. And for Hispanic citizens with roots here - the foremen and entrepreneurs who received visits from the police - the losses are especially profound.

Cave devoted a single sentence to Santa Rosa County Sheriff Wendell Hall's explanation that he was enforcing identity theft laws before the story plunged into pathos:

Donna Tucker, executive director of the Santa Rosa County Chamber of Commerce, said illegal immigration "creates havoc within the system" because businesses that used illegal labor often did not pay into workers' compensation funds and paid workers less.

"Those businesses can survive a lot longer than the ones that are trying to do things right," Ms. Tucker said.

Some of the frustrations also veered into prejudice.

George S. Collins, an inspector in charge of the illegal trafficking task force in Okaloosa County, said many people wanted to know "why we weren't going to Wal-Mart and rounding up the Mexicans" - a comment Mr. Collins said was racist and offensive.

Usually though, the complaints were cultural and legal.

Interviews with more than 25 residents and police officers suggest that the views of Harry T. Buckles, 68, a retired Navy corpsman, are common. Outside his home in Gulf Breeze, Mr. Buckles said the main problem with today's Hispanic immigrants was that they did not assimilate.


Santa Rosa is hardly the only place to use a tough approach against a small immigrant population. In Mississippi, where strict laws on false documentation recently passed, only about 1.7 percent of the state's 2.9 million people were born abroad and more than half of them are in the United States legally, according to estimates from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors tightening restrictions on immigration.

Cave seemed disturbed that a check of illegal immigrants would focus on Hispanics, as if police are wrong to make the basic observation that virtually all illegals in the areawould beHispanic. Cave alsowonderedwhy running when asked for ID would be judged suspicious behavior.

At Red Barn Barbecue, witnesses said that skin color clearly influenced police procedure. When several officers visited and saw no one who was Hispanic in the kitchen, they moved on. "We offered to give them records, and they said, 'No, it's not necessary,'" said Randy Brochu, whose family owns the business.

Meanwhile, at Emerald Coast Interiors, three employees - one black, one white, one Hispanic - independently said the police did, in fact, chase a handful of Hispanic employees who ran. Three women, they said, were caught in a ditch behind the main building.

Luis Ramirez, the plant's operations manager, said the officers asked to see documentation only for the workers who fled. "It was racial profiling," Mr. Ramirez said.

His company has not filed a lawsuit, so his accusations have not been tested. But Florida courts have repeatedly held that flight alone is not enough to justify a suspicion of criminal activity or arrest. In Bay County, officials said they tried to avoid chasing people now because prosecutors have warned that it undermines their cases.


In the immigrant community, fears now cloud the most basic routines. Many Hispanics said they avoided being seen or heard speaking Spanish in Wal-Mart, even if they live here legally. Others detailed their habit of meticulously checking their cars' headlights, blinkers and registration to avoid being pulled over....For Mrs. Barragan, 39, a warm, thin woman with hair to her waist, the consequences have been more personal. On a recent Wednesday night, her church's prayer service was half-empty. Many of her friends have left. And many of the employees that her family mentored in the ways of America are gone, taken away by the police.