During the past two weeks in Houston, Texas, rumors have spread through the Mexican immigrant community that federal agents are conducting mass roundups of illegal aliens. As a result, work stopped at several construction sites, children stayed home from school, and most of the residents of a large apartment building moved out overnight. Authorities say the rumors are false, but the panic continues.
They hunted down my brother-in-law like a rabbit, said a woman. She was one of about 400 people who turned up Monday at a meeting sponsored by the Houston Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans. The reason for the meeting was the wave of panic sweeping through the city's Hispanic immigrant community fueled by rumors of mass raids by la migra, as the immigration enforcement agents are known in Spanish.
Among the officials on hand was Congressman Gene Green, whose Houston district is heavily Hispanic. Speaking to VOA, the congressman said federal immigration officials are focused more on homeland security issues these days and are not conducting mass sweeps of undocumented workers.
?Our local INS [Immigration office] does not have the resources to go out and knock on doors of apartments and they do not go to schools and pick up children,? Mr. Green said. ?They do serve criminal warrants and if they know of someone, whether it is an alien or not, who has violated our laws they can detain that person, but they do not knock on doors in apartments in sweeps just to pick up people.?
Speaking at the meeting, Joseph Webber, director of the Houston office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, made the same point.
?We have not been conducting mass raids of apartment buildings. We have not been conducting raids of construction sites. We have not been conducting raids of churches, schools or other work sites,? Mr. Webber said.
But many in the crowd remained skeptical. At least one local Spanish-language radio station has fueled the fire by reporting some of the rumors on air and many of the people in attendance at the meeting also brought their own testimony.
This man, who said he represents a Mexican workers group, said he had many reports of immigration enforcement patrols in neighborhoods and at work sites. He said he also knew of people who have been arrested.
Mr. Webber said his agents do arrest illegal immigrants and that it is their job to arrest people who have broken the law. But, he repeated, his agency is not conducting mass sweeps of homes or work sites.
The Mexican Consul General for Houston, Eduardo Ibarrola, was also on hand and tried to dispel the fears.
He said the consulate had investigated the many reports it had received and had found no evidence of massive raids. But when questioned by some in the audience, Mr. Ibarrola said his consulate has not said there are no raids taking place, only that the evidence so far indicates that these are only rumors.
Some Mexican members of the audience criticized their country's representative for being ill-informed and for not doing enough to help them.
The rumors of immigration raids have had an impact on the local economy, in terms of lost production at plants and construction sites that depend on immigrant labor, and in terms of money lost at stores where immigrants shop. One restaurant chain has reportedly lost more than $100,000 because of the panic.
Abel Sanchez represents the Camara de Empresarios Latinos de Houston, a group of local Hispanic business leaders.
He says, ?They all have been impacted because people have been afraid to go to work the last couple of weeks and secondly, if they do not work, they are not going to go out and spend money.?
For some immigration activists the economic impact of the panic in Houston is a demonstration of how dependent local economies are on immigrant labor.
Noting this, the Houston Chronicle newspaper issued an editorial calling for some form of legalization for undocumented workers. Referring to President Bush's proposal to grant temporary work permits, the newspaper's editorial said "It is not a perfect model, but it at least recognizes the need for meaningful immigration reform to resolve the current irrational situation."
But there are also people, even among the Hispanic community, who believe illegal immigrants are imposing costs on the health and education systems in this country as well as taking jobs from U.S. citizens and legal residents.
At least one Mexican-American who attended the meeting Monday said that if the immigration authorities are not conducting raids, they should be. He said people who are here illegally should be arrested.