Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Police: Role in raid of restaurant was minimal

County officers say involvement part of federal probe; immigrant advocates say workers unfairly targeted

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County police last week defended their role in a July 12 raid at a Wheaton restaurant, saying their involvement was part of a broader investigation into money laundering and tax evasion.

However, immigration advocates remain critical of arrests they say extended to illegal immigrant workers who were beyond the scope of the federal investigation.

During a press conference Friday with Capt. David Gillespie and several members of the Montgomery County Police Media Services Division, officers discussed the county police’s involvement in the raid on El Pollo Rico. Federal agents charged the owners of the restaurant and two of their relatives with harboring illegal immigrants, money laundering and structuring bank deposits to avoid reporting requirements. Money and property were seized in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia, and several employees were arrested.

Four Montgomery County Police officers aided United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents with identifying employees and employers at El Pollo Rico and homes connected with the restaurant, according to the affidavit released shortly after the arrests were made.

Gillespie said the officers involved with the investigation did so as part of a larger task force meant to target drug trafficking and money laundering. The task force is part of the Washington⁄Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, Drug Money Laundering Investigation Group.

Gillespie also said that the harboring charge, which is directly connected to the money laundering, was the only reason Montgomery County Police officers were asked to identify several people affiliated with the restaurant.

Gillespie said many undocumented immigrant workers affiliated with the restaurant were not detained because they did not have direct involvement in the criminal charges and that those particular people were not going to be questioned further by Montgomery County police for any other reason besides the criminal investigation. The police helped identify 12 people the ICE were looking at as possible people of interest in the case, of which six were linked to the criminal investigation.

‘‘For the six people who ... have not been detained, we are not looking for them,” Gillespie said. ‘‘We’re not looking to track them down. ... Our focus was not about people who were legally here or not.”

Gillespie said he wanted to eliminate the fear that Montgomery County Police would be targeting any segment of the community or asking immigrants about their status. Members of the community, particularly immigration advocacy groups, have been vocal on the issue, saying that immigrant groups are now fearful of what the police’s involvement with ICE means to their own relationships with police.

‘‘We have an obligation to protect the people,” Gillespie said. ‘‘Montgomery County Police Department is not concerned in checking people [or] indiscriminately approaching them without a purpose. The things that we have done were done as a direct result of furthering a criminal investigation.”

Sgt. Adam Currie, who works with the police officers in Wheaton’s Central Business District, said the ICE officers’ presence at El Pollo Rico led people to assume that it was an immigration-centered investigation rather than a customs-centered investigation.

‘‘We never know how [ICE] are going to show up and I don’t know of any police involvement,” he said.

Cpl. Fernando J. Martinez, the Hispanic Liaison with Fourth District Police, which covers the Wheaton area, said he hasn’t gotten many fearful comments from Latinos.

‘‘I have talked to Hispanic people and they never brought it up,” he said. ‘‘[There] was nothing about them being angry. If there [were comments], it is just little cute remarks like, ‘I’m going to take you out to El Pollo Rico for lunch.’”

However, Gustavo Torres, director of Casa of Maryland, an organization that advocates for the rights of immigrant workers, said last week there was concern in the community that the undocumented workers were identified and arrested.

‘‘[Those] arrested were honest workers,” Torres said. ‘‘People who have been working, not committing any crimes.”

Manuel Hidalgo, executive director of the Latino Economic Development Corporation, said last week that understanding exactly how county police were involved remains an unclear and complex issue.

‘‘Montgomery County Police did take some part,” he said during a Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee meeting July 18. ‘‘This situation is one being monitored closely.”

Nine employees of El Pollo Rico, including the ones identified by Montgomery County Police, are now in the custody of ICE and could be deported.