Teens Speak on Immigration Raids, Fear

In April, authorities in Minnesota arrested dozens of illegal immigrants in a series of raids. The operation sent panic through the Latino community. Teenagers Joceline Lopez and Alex Sorto talk about what it was like to be targeted.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, a construction site in Hawaii unearths ancient remains and sparks a modern debate. But first we're going to talk more about immigration. Law enforcement has stepped up its efforts to find and deport illegal immigrants, and that search sometimes takes them door-to-door in some communities.

According to local reports, this week agents with the U.S. office at Immigration and Customs Enforcement staged raids in Austin, Minnesota. In April, agents searched homes in the town of Willmar, Minnesota, for illegal immigrants. Official said they were trying to make arrests on 16 outstanding warrants for various crimes, but they took nearly 50 people into custody.

Willmar is a town of just about 20,000, about 3,000 of whom are Hispanic. We wanted to know more about how those raids affected members of the community, regardless of their legal status. To talk about this, we're joined by Joceline Lopez and Alex Sorto. They are both seniors at Willmar High School. Alex, let's begin with you. What happened at your house on the day of the raid?

Mr. ALEX SORTO (Senior, Willmar High School): It was just a long day. I was still sleeping. It was almost seven, and I always wake up because take a shower and everything. So I just woke up because I was hearing some noises. At first, I just thought it was somebody knocking, then later I heard, like, more, like, banging on the door. So I just got up and I was already going to the bathroom to take a shower.

And then, once they got in my room, I thought - they were already in when I got out and I knew that nobody opened the door for them. He told me to stay, and then my mom was there, and she was shaken up. And I was, like, what's going on? And they're, like, who lives here? They're, like, me and my mom, we live here. They, like, they told me if I had an ID with me. And I was, like, yeah, I have an ID. So they took it.

MARTIN: Did they say who they were? Did you know who they were?

Mr. SORTO: Well, they had the, like, the clothes like the police, what they wear. All they said was, like, who are you? What's your name? And then one of the other cops told me, do you know who live upstairs? And, like, no, I don't know who lives there, because it's a duplex. They are just telling me, yes, you do. You know who live upstairs. And, like, I don't even keep track, I just keep track of my house, who comes here and that.

And then they would just keep telling me and telling me, like, who lives upstairs? Who lives upstairs? Like, I don't know. They kept raising their voice. I was already getting mad, then my mom was the one who told me, like, don't. Calm down, because they might do something to you. And I saw my mom was so shaken up and scared, and then, like, I just didn't do anything, I just tried to calm down because my mom was scared.

MARTIN: How many were there? How many agents were there?

Mr. SORTO: I think there was, like, five of them. And they were just looking through the rooms, throwing everything around like it was their stuff. And they didn't even ask us if they can (unintelligible) they just went for it like it was their house or something. After that they just left. I don't know what happened.

MARTIN: What did your mother tell you about what was going on? What did you come to believe or understand about what was going on?

Mr. SORTO: She was just scared. She barely could even say nothing, like, she was just shaken up. I told her, ma, I should just stay here with you so you can just calm down. And she told me, no, you should go to school because I don't want you to miss. And then, like, all right, I'll go, but you call me if anything happens. She barely could even drive me to school. She was just, like, shaken up. I was, like, are you okay mom? And then - yeah.

MARTIN: Joceline, what about you? Did the agents come to your house also?

Ms. JOCELINE LOPEZ (Senior, Willmar High School): Yeah, they did.

MARTIN: The same day?

Ms. LOPEZ: No. They came on - it was on April 10th.

MARTIN: What happened?

Ms. LOPEZ: Well, then I - it was at six o'clock, around that time, in the morning and my boyfriend's sister called me to say that they went to her house and that they were looking for my boyfriend. He's an illegal here. And they told me that they were coming here, so then I told my step dad, he's an American, he was born here.

He went out to have a smoke, but he told me once he tried to open the door and they just, like, they just went through him and they came upstairs to my room. And they just opened the door, they didn't even knock or they didn't even show warrant or anything.

And then they kept asking me, where's the - where the guy who - where is he? And I told them, who are you looking for? And then he just told me, I'm looking for the guy in the white shirt. Where is he? I know he's in here. I'm, like, I told them that he is not in my room. And they went to my closet and they threw all my dirty clothes on the floor. They went in my bed. They took all the covers off. And I was holding my baby. She is seven months.

And so then they went to - they asked me who was in my other room and I told them my sister but there's nobody there, and they went to her room. They just turned on the lights and they asked her, where is he? They were looking around, and they just opened the closet. And a friend of ours who lives here, he's illegal here, and he got scared probably so then he went in and hid in the closet. And that's where they found him.

So then they came back to my room. One of the guys was yelling at me. He was telling me, why did you lie? Why did you lie? And I told him that I didn't lie, I just said he wasn't in my room. I didn't tell him not in the house. And they started screaming, like, I felt like it was like boot camp because, like, right in my face and…

MARTIN: What were they screaming?

Ms. LOPEZ: They just told me, why did you lie to me? Do you know you could get arrested? I told them you can't arrest me, and they just started laughing. So then they asked me, do you have an ID? And I said yeah. And they told me, where were you born? And I told them in Los Angeles. So where was your daughter born? And I told them that she's from here. She's from Willmar. And they started laughing, and then they asked me, how old are you? So I told them 17. So then they kept asking me more questions.

MARTIN: When did they finally leave, Joceline?

Ms. LOPEZ: They left when they found out that the guy that lives with us wasn't from here.

MARTIN: How did that make you feel?

Ms. LOPEZ: I felt bad because supposedly - because I read in the paper that they used this method knock-and-enter, something like that. And for me that was a lie, because they didn't show a warrant or nothing. I knew that they were the people because they were wearing - it said police and it said ICE on the back. And I knew it was them, but then they didn't even show warrant.

MARTIN: It's been a couple of weeks now, right?

Ms. LOPE: Yeah.

Mr. SORTO: Yeah.

MARTIN: About a month ago, a little over a month ago. How do you feel now?

Mr. SORTO: Well, it's still kind of, like, gets to me because my mom always said that she always thinks that every time she goes to bed that there's people always knocking at the door. And I'm always telling her, nobody will be knocking at the door, mom, and everything.

MARTIN: What about you? I know you're talking about your mom, but what about you? Do you still think about it?

Mr. SORTO: Yeah, I still think about it.

MARTIN: Joceline, what do you think? It was about a month or so ago. Do you still think about what happened?

Ms. LOPEZ: I still do. And the thing that, like, hits me hard was that I'm Hispanic, so then, like, I think that, like, as American people here might see me and then might think that, like, I'm illegal here or something. And I, like, I'm scared.

MARTIN: And what are you hearing from friends and other people at school and places in the community? What are people saying?

Ms. LOPEZ: What I heard is, like, some Americans said that it's a good thing that they came because they were stealing some people's tax money. And for me, I feel bad because they don't know what happened, like what really happened. And for me, like, probably if that would happen to them, they won't think the same way.

MARTIN: You're both American citizens.

Mr. SORTO: Yeah.

Ms. LOPEZ: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Has this affected the way you think about yourself as American citizens?

Mr. SORTO: Well, for me, yes. Like, this is my senior year and I always thought, oh, this year is going to be the best, and then this happens. So this is one of those things that messed my year of being a senior. But now it's just different.

MARTIN: Joceline, what about you? I know you're graduating in a couple of days also. Congratulations to both of you. But does this make you feel different somehow?

Ms. LOPEZ: Oh, it makes me feel different because, like, I think, like, I've seen how they treated them. They're not criminals. I just saw myself in their shoes and how they'll feel. And, like, they wish that they could be citizens like us but they can't. And I feel bad, like, I just feel bad.

MARTIN: Do you still feel scared?

Ms. LOPEZ: Yeah, I do.

MARTIN: What are you scared of?

Ms. LOPEZ: I'm scared that they will come back and, like, do the same thing. So, like, now if they come back, I know not to speak or don't open the doors or anything. So I think that I'm, like, prepared.

MARTIN: Well, I know you're both graduating on Sunday. Do you think you're going to be able to enjoy it?

Ms. LOPEZ: I'll try to, like, forget it, but I don't think I will. But I'll just try to just live the moment.

MARTIN: Alex Sorto and Joceline Lopez live in Willmar, Minnesota. Their homes were raided by immigration authorities in April. Thank you both for talking with us today.

Mr. SORTO: Yeah, you're welcome, ma'am.

Ms. LOPEZ: You're welcome.

MARTIN: A local immigration official told the New York Times, which reported on the raid, that their operation was, quote, "fully within the law."

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