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September 23, 2014

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Local Hispanic community on edge after immigration raids

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Steve Marcus

A woman rocks her child during an immigration vigil at Amistad Cristiana, an interdenominational church on Stewart Avenue, Thursday, August 5, 2010. Pastor Joel Menchaca said he called the vigil because many people were fearful after a series of immigration raids last week.

Immigration vigil at Amistad Cristiana

Rosa D. Rios looks upward during an immigration vigil at Amistad Cristiana, an interdenominational church on Stewart Avenue, Thursday, August 5, 2010. Pastor Joel Menchaca said he called the vigil because many people were fearful after a series of immigration raids last week. Launch slideshow »

Armistad Cristiana

Pastor Joel Menchaca’s voice rang through a small downtown Las Vegas church Thursday evening as he led a group of about 100 mostly Hispanic worshippers in song.

“Te amo dios,” he sang, microphone in-hand, as the voices of those in the crowd joined him. Some swayed to the beat. Others raised their hands in praise as they sang along.

“I love you, Lord,” came the next verse, in English.

But Thursday’s service wasn’t a night of regular worship at Armistad Cristiana: It was a community vigil.

A week earlier, an immigration sweep at Las Vegas-area bus terminals netted the arrests of more than two dozen suspected illegal immigrants by federal agents — arrests that have left the valley’s Hispanic community shaken.

“The reason we’re having the vigil is because a lot of people are afraid. They don’t want to go out,” Menchaca said. “We want to let them know that there is hope in God.

“He hasn’t forgotten about us, and we are here to pray for all.”

Menchaca was one of a half a dozen ministers from various valley congregations who addressed those gathered at the church at 901 Stewart Ave.

Michael Flores, an activist with Las Vegas-based Progress NowNevada, was one of the event’s organizers. He said he wanted to help quell the worry that began to bubble after the arrests.

“We’re really trying to calm the situation down. A lot of people in the community are very panicked,” he said. “We’re using the churches as a vessel to get the word out to be calm.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials arrested 31 people on July 29 in sweeps at a Greyhound bus station, the Tufesa bus station, and the Los Angeles/El Paso Limousine Bus, said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Kenneth Quillin.

Twelve of those arrested had a prior criminal history, said Quillin, who is based in Yuma, Ariz.

He described the arrests as “an intelligence-based operation...aimed at disrupting human smuggling activities at transportation sites that are used as a means to further illegal trafficking.”

He couldn’t speak as to whether future sweeps were planned for Las Vegas.

Florentino Martinez is among those who have been on edge since last week’s arrests.

He came to Las Vegas about 10 years ago after he and his wife both paid a “coyote,” or a human-smuggler, $1,000 to be transported across the Mexican border.

Like many who cross into the United States illegally, Martinez wanted a better life.

Since the sweeps last week, he’s been afraid, he said.

“We’re scared. We almost don’t want to go into the streets or want to go anywhere because something could happen,” he said in Spanish, with Flores translating, outside the church.

Now he worries that he could be sent back to Mexico and be faced with leaving behind his small children, all of whom were born in the U.S.

It’s not that he doesn’t want to be a legal citizen. It’s that it’s too difficult, he said.

Echoing a refrain common to those on all sides of the immigration debate, he said reform is needed.

Flores called the current immigration policies a “lose-lose situation.”

“We have a big message to politicians and candidates, which is that we have a broken immigration system,” Flores said. “I think everybody wants this issue to be fixed, and we need to do it in a fair, just way. But we can’t have people living in fear.”

Many at Thursday’s vigil said they believed the arrests were conducted to send a message and pointed to the fact that they took place on the same day a federal judge delayed implementing parts of the controversial new Arizona immigration law.

Click to enlarge photo

Daniel Martinez, 3, waits during an immigration vigil at Amistad Cristiana, an interdenominational church on Stewart Avenue, Thursday, August 5, 2010. The boy's father was one of the musicians. Pastor Joel Menchaca said he called the vigil because many people were fearful after a series of immigration raids last week.

Some also questioned some of the tactics the agents reportedly used in making the arrests.

“I know they have intelligence, but there needs to be accountability in agencies. They can’t just do things because they want to,” Flores said.

One of the purposes of Thursday’s gathering, Flores said, was to make sure people were informed about their rights upon being questioned.

Joelda May, Menchaca’s daughter and assistant pastor at Armistad Cristiana, said that although the sweeps were unexpected and frightening, they have brought the Hispanic community closer together.

“I think it’s making our community tighter and opening our eyes to how we need to help each other out,” she said.

Rumors of other raids, though unfounded, have been swirling since last week.

A number of undocumented people have been afraid to leave their homes and go out in public for fear of being arrested in a raid, she said. Neighbors or fellow parishioners who are here legally have been helping them out — for example, by going to the supermarket for them.

“If we continue to get this information out to the community, if we continue to open everyone’s eyes up and to have these reunions as much as we can and bring everyone together, I think it’s just going to help them realize that we’re not going to leave them by themselves,” May said. “We’re going to be here as a church, as a community, as a family and help in any way we can.”

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