By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN; May 23, 2007 - New York Times
The day before everything happened, Alex Sorto left Willmar High School as usual at 2:30, and grabbed a ride to his night job as a janitor at the Jennie-O turkey processing plant. He had been working there for four months, saving money for college tuition, and hoping to study art even though his mother wanted him to be a lawyer.
Alex had already heard there were immigration agents in town, raiding the trailer parks and rented homes of the Hispanics who had flocked to this county seat on the Minnesota prairie in search of work at Jennie-O. Alex believed that because he was a citizen, he was safe.
So he put in his eight hours sweeping and swabbing, and went home to finish up the portfolio that was his final project for communications class. The portfolio consisted mostly of an autobiography. In it Alex recalled his early years in Los Angeles, the child of two Honduran immigrants, and the divorce that sent him and his mother, Rosa Sorto, to a green-shingled duplex on Ann Street in Willmar.
As a senior, just a few weeks from graduation, Alex had already passed the required state tests, which were being administered at Willmar High the next morning.
So he knew he could sleep late, a rare treat on a weekday, before starting his regular classes.
The next thing he knew, at the unfair hour of 6:30 a.m. on April 13, he heard a banging noise. Groggy, he at first assumed the racket came from the family upstairs.
By the time he tugged on a pair of jeans and walked toward the living room, he could hear nearby voices shouting. He saw his mother on the couch, being peppered with questions by four immigration agents — questions about her papers, questions about his, questions about two single men who rented rooms from them. In his entire life, all 18 years, Alex had never seen her so close to crying.
In the end, the agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement accepted the proof that Alex and his mother, who has permanent resident status, were legal. The two renters, Roberto and Augustine, were led away in handcuffs, Roberto wearing only his boxer shorts.
Then Ms. Sorto discovered how the agents had apparently entered her apartment; the window of the locked side door, intact the previous night, was now broken.
Even after all the tumult, Ms. Sorto insisted that Alex go to school. Even though it was 8:30, and he had no classes for another hour, she drove him there. He watched her hands quake as she tried to steer. In art class, his favorite, he could not get his pencil to move. All he could think about was what would become of him if his mother were taken away.
Such was the triumph of Operation Cross Check, the federal raid against illegal immigrants that went on for four days last month in this community of about 18,500 people. To the Department of Homeland Security, the operation was a success, catching a convicted sex offender and several welfare cheats among its 49 arrests. In a news release announcing the toll, an immigration enforcement director for Minnesota said, “Our job is to help protect the public from those who commit crimes.”
Yet more than half of those arrested had committed no crime other than being in the United States illegally, doing the jobs at Jennie-O that prop up the local economy. And, as the experience of Alex Sorto demonstrates, the aggressive, invasive style of the sweep instilled lasting fear among Willmar’s 3,000 Hispanics, many of them students born or naturalized in the United States. These young people are the political football in America’s bitter, unresolved battle about immigration.
“All of us are scared,” said Andrea Gallegos, a junior at the high school. “When you go to school, you don’t know if your parents will be there when you come home. I don’t feel safe anywhere — walking to the school bus, walking outside the school building.”
Sharon Tollefson, a guidance counselor, had one promising student vanish in the aftermath of the raid. The young man, whom she identified by only his first name, Santiago, had been attending both day and night classes to graduate this spring. Ms. Tollefson was helping to arrange for him to visit a local college, where he planned to study law enforcement with the goal of becoming a police officer.
The first morning of the raids, April 10, Santiago took his required state test in writing. The next day, when he was supposed to sit for the math exam, he did not show up at school. Ms. Tollefson has since heard rumors that he was deported to Mexico.
“He was working his fanny off,” Ms. Tollefson said, almost wistfully, in an interview last week. “I keep saying I’m not taking him off my roster. I can’t believe he won’t be coming back.”
THE objections to the immigration raid go far beyond the anecdotal. A group of about 30 Hispanic residents of Willmar, including Alex and Rosa Sorto, has filed suit in United States District Court in Minneapolis, alleging that the immigration and domestic security agencies violated the Constitution. The suit maintains that the armed officers engaged in racial profiling, and that they broke into private homes without search warrants as part of a “campaign of terror and intimidation.”
Tim Counts, a spokesman for the immigration agency in Minnesota, declined yesterday to answer the suit’s allegations in detail, beyond saying that the operation was “fully within the law and appropriate.” He also said that homes were entered only with the permission of residents, and added, “We will make our case in the court of law.”
When Alex Sorto moved to Willmar in the late 1990s, he said he kept quiet about his past. He felt as if he was the only child in school with divorced parents. Over time, he grew comfortable enough to share the secret without being ostracized.
Since that April morning, Friday the 13th, he has reacquired the habit of silence. His communications teacher suggested that he try to put the whole experience out of his thoughts. But she isn’t the one who worries about what could happen if his mother gets stopped by “la Migra,” as the immigration agents are known, on a day she left her driver’s license at home.
“This was the year everything was supposed to go right for me,” Alex said. “And then all this happened.”