A panel discussion at the State College Municipal Building Tuesday night tried to shed some light on a question: Why was State College the site of an immigration raid by federal authorities on June 12?
Agents from the Department of Homeland Security entered several Asian restaurants that day as part of an investigation on unauthorized workers and detained 21 people. Since then, 12 have been released, but six were deported and three remain in custody. Councilman Peter Morris was on the four-person panel and spoke from the perspective of the community. An aspect of the raid was amusing, Morris said, adding that the image of Homeland Security agents entering kitchens of restaurants was something from a “bad comic movie.”
Morris wasn’t laughing though. The people detained were poor, didn’t speak much English or own property, he said.
“Nevertheless, they are members of our community and they deserve respect and they deserve fairness and they deserve a chance at a decent life,” Morris said. “Treating people in that way isn’t funny.”
The secrecy behind the raid, both before and after the fact, is also of concern, Morris said. Council members were not notified of the sting beforehand and he only found out that day, when he tried to have lunch at College Buffet, one of the restaurants visited by federal agents.
James Wade, a federal public defender for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, was a member of the panel and explained the role of a federal grand jury. If criminal charges were to be brought against those still detained, they’d have to be indicted by such a jury, he explained. The work of a grand jury explains the lack of information from federal authorities about the raid. Members and most involved, with the exception of witnesses, are sworn to secrecy, he said.
“As a community, when you can’t get answers, that’s normal,” he said. “It’s their job. They can’t speak about it.”
Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, director of Penn State Law’s Center for Immigrants’ Rights, was the first to speak and gave a brief overview of immigration law, policy and the agencies that enforce them. She provided some figures that added to the big picture of immigration enforcement. In 2013, 438,000 people were removed from the U.S., she said.
Juliette Gomez, an immigration lawyer based in Philadelphia, was the last member of the panel to speak. An operation like the one conducted in June was a “shock,” as such raids were more likely in years past.
A more common way that immigration policy is now enforced is through agreements with local law enforcement, she said. Undocumented immigrants are picked up for routine violations and detained longer by the local agency at the request of immigration authorities and picked up by federal authorities later, she said.
State College Police Chief Tom King was in attendance and spoke to the nearly 100 community members after the panelists were finished. His department does not have such an agreement to hold detainees and such an agreement will not be made, he said.
Officers from the department, as well as Patton and Ferguson townships, assisted in the investigation on June 12, which was an execution of search warrants by federal authorities. State College police has always helped with state and federal investigations, he said. Their purpose on that day was to provide a uniformed presence so the public would know it was a legal action, he said.
King said that was all he could disclose on the investigation, which is ongoing.