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Customs raid was an overreaction

Ald. George Cardenas | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Ald. George Cardenas | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 8, 2013 2:15AM

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is more commonly known for its abbreviated term, ICE, and it is a fitting, chilling acronym.

ICE sends shivers down the spines of immigrants who have entered or stayed in the country illegally and fear being deported to their home country. Some say that’s OK because such people are not appropriately documented to be in this country.

But it’s important to point out that fear of ICE isn’t felt by the undocumented alone. That’s why Latino aldermen, activists and business owners lashed out last week at a joint operation by ICE and the Cook County sheriff’s department that sent people hurrying from a Swap-O-Rama flea market June 29 on South Ashland Avenue in the Back of the Yards.

The departments raided a vending area where pirated DVDs and CDs were being sold. ICE conducted the raid under its customs arm, not for immigration purposes. Thirteen people were arrested on state misdemeanor charges for intellectual property rights violations, according to an ICE statement. No immigration action was taken.

Yet, it left bitter feelings.

Aldermen George A. Cardenas and Daniel Solis, as well as Cook County Board Commissioner Jesus G. Garcia, condemned the raid.

Cardenas said at a press conference that a “serious imbalance” exists when major crimes are occurring, yet a raid takes place to target people peddling $5 CDs.

“It was overwhelming force,” he said. “I question it.”

Officials also used words like heavy-handed and overzealous.

The joint operation is likely to bring more distrust of police officers at a time when “leaders are saying we need collaboration” between police and residents, Solis added.

“It’s very unfortunate that anyone mistook the operation for one focused on immigration,” said Cara Smith, chief of policy for Sheriff Thomas J. Dart. “It was focused solely on counterfeit music and videos. The sheriff is very, very sensitive to all immigration issues.”

Photographs of the Swap-O-Rama show some officers involved in the raid wearing black bulletproof vests with identifying words: POLICE, ICE or HSI for Homeland Security Investigations.

ICE and HSI terrify. One vendor said the market emptied and business didn’t recover that Saturday or the following day.

The lawmakers said the joint operation could have been handled more discreetly without alarming shoppers.

No one wants to live in a police state, but that’s how immigrants feel when a heavily attended public gathering is raided. I’m not referring only to frightened undocumented immigrants. Such happenings leave an emotional vacuum for all who witness them. It makes them think the sanctuary ordinance enacted in Cook County is a big lie.

In assessing blame for the raid, however, we should start with those who sold pirated goods. They effectively set out a welcome mat for ICE. Organizers of Swap-O-Rama also failed by not monitoring vendors.

But ICE needs to evaluate its tactics. What does it achieve when it’s on the front lines of a bust over $5 discs? ICE and HSI like to boast about deporting criminals and breaking up major criminal enterprise rings under customs enforcement. That’s important work. The paltry stuff is significant, too. Yet, sometimes you need a plan of action that won’t paralyze an entire community.

Unless you don’t care about coming off cold.

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