Organizers of Tuesday evening’s town hall meeting hoped the event would help ease tensions between federal immigration officials and members of the Hispanic community who were aggravated by recent raids at valley bus stations.
But the roughly hourlong event appeared to do little but further polarize the two sides.
Paul Beeson, chief patrol agent for the U.S. Border Patrol in Yuma, Ariz., insisted his agents followed proper protocol during the July 29 raids, acted on good intelligence about Las Vegas becoming a hub for human and drug smugglers, and didn’t target anyone based on race. The Yuma sector includes all of Nevada.
"We don’t engage in racial profiling," Beeson said. "It is against the law."
Still, few in the crowd of about 100 people, mostly Hispanic community members, seemed convinced.
Emmanuel Corrales, owner of Las Vegas Shuttles, one of the businesses targeted in the raids, said he and other U.S. citizens who were his clients were harassed by agents because of "the color of our skin."
Corrales and other witnesses said Border Patrol agents dressed in street clothes didn’t promptly identify themselves and refused to answer questions from owners and managers of the bus stations that were targeted.
"It’s just plain wrong they came," he said.
The officials from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which conducted the raids, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement participated in the town hall meeting after being invited by the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Reid’s office organized the meeting after hearing concerns from community members about tactics used during the raids.
A Reid staffer initially turned away members of the media who showed up to cover the event, saying that it was open to "community members" — not the media — and that the event was "invitation-only."
A news release sent out earlier in the week by Michael Flores, an immigrant rights activist with ProgressNow Nevada, was a mistake, said Christina Martinez, a regional representative for Reid.
"One of our community members took it upon himself to put a press release out and invite all the media," she said.
Another Reid staffer had responded in an e-mail Monday to questions from the Review-Journal about the event but didn’t say it was closed to the media.
After some members of the media entered the room anyway Tuesday evening, Martinez agreed to let reporters stay but did not allow cameras.
"I want to be sure we have a very candid conversation where people can speak freely without a camera here in the audience," she said.
Flores said Reid’s office had asked him to help "get the word out" about the meeting and never mentioned anything about not inviting the media. Several people in attendance said that their "invitations" consisted of an e-mail from Flores and that the media should be there.
"I don’t understand why they don’t want you here," said Joel Menchaca, pastor of Amistad Cristiana, who held a special prayer vigil at his church in an effort to calm the community after the raids.
"It’s important to have the media here," Flores said. "The community needs to know about this."
Border Patrol agents arrested 31 suspected illegal immigrants during the raids, which began at the same time immigration rights groups gathered at a local church to celebrate a judge’s decision to block the most controversial sections of a new Arizona immigration law.
The agents were in Las Vegas because, according to intelligence they had gathered, the city has become a hub increasingly used by smuggling organizations to transport people and drugs between Los Angeles and Phoenix, the federal agency said.
The agents wore street clothes because "we want to be as discreet as we can," Beeson said. "We don’t want to cause a fuss."
Twelve of those arrested had criminal histories that included charges of theft, prostitution and burglary, or other immigration-related offenses, the agency said.
Some of the 31 were taken to a Border Patrol station for processing. Others were released pending upcoming immigration hearing dates or were deported.
Beeson said Tuesday that the agency hadn’t uncovered any evidence of smuggling during the raids.
"It seems to me they made a big mistake," Malena Burnett, the owner of a local business that helps immigrants with citizenship applications and other legal issues, said after the meeting.
"The intelligence they had was faulty. They didn’t find smugglers. They didn’t find drugs. What they did was create a lot of panic."
Some audience members said they felt the agents were targeting businesses that deal mainly with Hispanic clients.
Beeson said the agency didn’t target any particular community.
"We went where those stations were" that had been identified by intelligence sources, he said. "That’s what we did, folks."
Beeson also responded to questions about family members who were separated during the raids. The agency made sure arrangements were made to care for any children, he said, and family members were quickly reunited after those who had been arrested were processed.
"We’re not interested in separating families," Beeson said. "We recognize we need to keep families together."
Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis@ reviewjournal.com.