On the night of Aug. 29, a freak summer thunderstorm tore through SLO County, leaving fires, downed tree branches, and sleep-deprived residents in its wake. Yet it wasn't the storm that had members of North County's Latino community talking the next day.
The talk instead was about a sweep led by the County Sheriff's Department that saw local police and probation workers teaming up with agents of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement ICE in a series of home raids centered in Shandon and Paso Robles. In all, 40 people were brought in, most on suspicion of various parole and probation violations ranging from possession of false citizenship documents to drug charges. A dozen were sent to L.A. for deportation proceedings.
Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Brian Hascall said that the operation was geared at gang members, though he said some of those who've been targeted for deportation were not targets but were detained during the course of the sweep.
"Their status was checked and it was determined they were in the country illegally," Hascall said.
An ICE spokeswoman said nine of those being deported were found in that way. All were from Mexico, she said.
With no formal announcement of the raids made until six days after they occurred, rumors swirled in the community about what exactly had happened and where agents might be headed next.
"We heard about a mom who'd heard the INS was at Food for Less," said Marisela Garcia, an English learner specialist with Paso Robles Schools. "She locked herself in the back bedroom and wouldn't answer the telephone. In case they knocked, she wanted to make sure it seemed like nobody was home."
For her part, Garcia said she's worried the raids will spread fear into the schools.
"I'm concerned about how this is affecting the children. Are they afraid they'll go
to school and come home and nobody will be there when they get back? I don't know," she said.
In the hours after the raid began, Spanish language radio stations broadcast regular updates, passing on what information they could glean from callers, and in some cases warning people to avoid certain businesses.
Hascall stressed that no businesses were targeted in the raid. He also emphasized that the intended targets were people with criminal histories or who'd been identified as having been deported in the past.
"We're not targeting people who were obeying the laws and doing what they're supposed to do," he said. "They are law breakers, and that's the reason they were targeted."
In the department's press release, however, no charges were listed for 10 of the 12 sent for deportation. They were simply listed as "immigration hold."
This sweep echoes similar ones in L.A., Boston, and Chicago in recent weeks. ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said the effort was part of "Operation Community Shield." Like Hascall, she said gang members were the targets of the raids, but others were caught up as well.
"We call that collateral detention on immigration violations," she said.
Retired educator Richard Benitez said he first heard about the crackdown while he was trying to spread the word about a low-income program associated with the gas company on behalf of the Latino Outreach Council.
"People asked: 'Do you think people are going to come forward?' I asked, 'Why wouldn't they?' They said, 'Well immigration is out and they're doing a sweep,'" he said.
For Benitez, a former history teacher, the raid reminds him of bad times.
"Knowing the history of California and the history of the U.S., knowing that we've gone through these cycles, to actually live through one is kind of distressing," he said. "We're seeing some progress, but when you think you've seen us take two steps forward, you learn we're taking three steps back."
Michael C. Blank, a local lawyer who has a high percentage of Latino clients, said his office began to receive calls shortly after the raids.
"They asked, 'What's up? Can I go to the store?' The word gets out, and the rumors fly, and they're not always accurate. They fear, they hide behind doors," he said.
Blank said that while similar sweeps have been occurring in L.A., this was unusual for SLO.
"I question why the sheriff is not distinguishing hardened felons from petty criminals," he said.
He said that if such sweeps are intended to reduce crime, they could have the opposite effect.
"They're destroying trust," he said. "Undocumented people dislike criminals and drug dealers as much as we do. We want them to be able to tell the police, 'Hey, there's a meth lab around the corner' without fear that they'll get deported."
Patrick Howe is managing editor of New Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.