Veronica Matias and her aunt Eulalia Matias were leaving for a church retreat Saturday morning when two vehicles blocked their driveway in East Ridge.
Men got out of the cars and, without identifying themselves, started asking if she and her aunt were in the country legally and demanding identification, Ms. Matias said.
“I got out the car and asked them why they needed my information,” said Ms. Matias, a 20-year-old U.S. citizen. “I was told they were looking for a murderer, and they showed me the picture of a man from Ecuador.”
OPERATION RETURN TO SENDER
* More than 280 immigration fugitives targeted in the Chattanooga-Knoxville area
* About 585,000 fugitives targeted nationwide
* 48 people arrested over the weekend, 22 in Chattanooga
* Operation in Eastern Tennessee involved four fugitive operation teams from New Orleans, Memphis, Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C.
Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
AT A GLANCE
On April 16, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested 311 workers, including 100 in Chattanooga, suspected of being in the country illegally at Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plants in Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, Florida and West Virginia. ICE officials said the arrests were part of a year-long investigation. Thirty-six of the 100 detained in Chattanooga were released with monitoring ankle bracelets as an alternative to detention.
She told the men she didn’t recognize the man and they left, she said. The next morning, however, as she and her aunt again were leaving for the retreat, the men returned, Ms. Matias said. This time they identified themselves as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials coming to arrest her aunt on a previous deportation order.
Eulalia Matias was one of 48 people arrested during the weekend — 22 in Chattanooga, the rest in Knoxville and surrounding rural counties — as part of an operation called “Return to Sender,” according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
“Operation Return to Sender is an ongoing enforcement operation for ICE where we are targeting immigration fugitives — people who failed to appear to their immigration hearing or had an outstanding warrant for their deportation,” said Philip Miller, deputy field office director for the detention and removal program for ICE for the Southeast region.
During the operation, agents have administrative warrants of deportation and arrest, Mr. Miller said. “That’s the reason why we knock and identify ourselves ... they are not going and kicking the doors, these are consensual searches and interviews,” he said.
Ms. Matias said her aunt previously applied for permanent residency, but she apparently failed to appear at an immigration appointment because they moved and didn’t know when the appointment was scheduled.
Watching her aunt get taken away “was really horrible, really hard to lose somebody. I can’t explain it,” Ms. Matias said.
Immigration officers are empowered by law to question a person’s right to be or remain in the United States, Mr. Miller said.
“During the course of our investigation (we have to) identify are you or are you not a fugitive,” he said. “If we knock at a targeted address where we are going to talk to a person, (we need) to make sure he or she is not a criminal, is not wanted by any federal or state law enforcement or (whether) that man or woman may also be an immigration fugitive.”
If someone is detained even though they’re not the original target, “they just happened to be at the wrong address,” he said.
There now are 285 immigration fugitives in this area, he said, and about 585,000 nationwide. Those arrested this weekend are from 12 different countries and will be taken to the Western Louisiana removal hub, Mr. Miller said, from which they will be deported after their passports are secured.
The length of the deportation process varies depending on a person’s country of origin and the diplomatic relationship between that country and the United States, Mr. Miller said. It could take a month or two for those who come from Eastern European countries; one to two weeks for Mexican nationals; two to three weeks for Hondurans and Guatemalans; and up to a month for people from El Salvador, he said.
And Operation Return to Sender is ramping up its efforts, he said.
“We are about to bring on board a second fugitive operation team in Tennessee that will be based in Nashville, and their area of responsibility will be Eastern Tennessee, so we will be continuing to work targeted immigration fugitives in the Chattanooga area,” he said.
Ms. Matias said her aunt, now in Nashville, has contacted the family several times since Sunday.
“We can only pray for it to be God’s will,” she said. “We just want her to be fine.”
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...