It was supposed to be the start of another school day for 15-year-old Marie Justeen Mancha as she sat in her bedroom, waiting for her mother to return from an errand in town.

But on this morning in September 2006, Mancha, a U.S. citizen, found herself in a situation she never expected to encounter in her own home.

"I started to hear the words, 'Police! Illegals!'" she said. "It seems as if those words still ring in my head today, giving me that fear of them busting into my home. I walked around the corner from the hallway and saw a tall man reach toward his gun and look straight at me."

She was caught in the middle of a botched immigration raid in southeast Georgia. Federal agents barged into homes without showing warrants and targeted U.S. citizens of Mexican descent, like Mancha, solely because of their skin color.

Two years later, Mancha recounted the experience before the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law. Her congressional testimony was part of a February 2008 hearing about problems with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) procedures.

Mancha, her mother and three other U.S. citizens of Mexican descent are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed by the SPLC against ICE in 2006.

The lawsuit charges that ICE agents illegally detained, searched and harassed Latinos solely because of their appearance — a violation of their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights — during an extensive campaign to drive them out of the area. A sixth plaintiff is a landlord who suffered damage to his rental properties when agents broke into trailers rented by Latinos.

Mancha told subcommittee members about the fear she felt that morning.

"I saw a group of law enforcement agents standing in the living room blocking the front door," she said. "My heart just dropped. I didn't know what was about to happen. … When the tall man reached for his gun I just stood there, feeling so scared."

Mancha, who speaks with a gentle Southern accent, said the agents asked if her mother was in the U.S. legally. Her mother was born in Florida.

Agents Showed No Warrant
"I started to feel closed in, like I couldn't say no or not answer them because they were blocking the front door," she said of the agents, who never showed a search warrant.

"At times, I didn't want to be Mexican because of what we go through and how people look at us different and treat us and assume we're all illegal," she told the subcommittee.

The raids began on Sept. 1, 2006, and lasted for several weeks. They were intended to locate undocumented immigrants who worked at a poultry plant in Stillmore, a town of about 1,000 people in Emanuel County. But rather than conduct a raid only at the plant, dozens of agents fanned out across residential areas in three counties — stopping motorists, breaking into homes and threatening people with tear gas and guns. Hundreds were terrorized. Many fled into the woods.

The agents left Mancha's home after she answered their questions, telling them that she and her mother are U.S. citizens. Her mother arrived as the agents left.

ICE agents have conceded that they did not have warrants to enter the homes in southeast Georgia. However, they contend that their entries into homes were "voluntary." Nonetheless, Mancha's experience exemplifies the transformation of ICE into an agency where large, military-style raids have left immigrant communities seriously traumatized.1

A recent investigation found that ICE changed its focus in 2006 from deporting undocumented immigrants who are criminal and terrorism suspects to easier targets. The changes eliminated a requirement for 75 percent of those arrested to be criminals. This policy shift came after officials told Congress they would focus on the most threatening targets.2

These changes, according to The New York Times, allowed non-fugitives — those apprehended by chance without a deportation order — to be included in arrest counts of the teams in the National Fugitive Operations Program. The number of non-fugitives arrested surged to 40 percent while fugitives with criminal records fell to 9 percent of those arrested, the story found.

After the policy shift, ICE agents conducted a raid in New Haven, Conn., in June 2007. During the raid, agents didn't find a suspect at the address listed on a deportation order. The agents began knocking on doors and arresting any residents who said they didn't have legal status.3

The fallout from such events reverberates long after the agents leave a community. The SPLC interviewed residents immediately after the Georgia raid and returned in the summer of 2008. SPLC researchers found that Latinos in the community remain traumatized nearly two years later.

"I was so scared. I still am. I carry that fear with me every day — wondering when they'll come back," Mancha told the subcommittee.

1. See for example "Paying the Price: The Impact of Immigration Raids on America's Children," National Council of La Raza, 2007.

2. Nina Bernstein, "Target of Immigrant Raids Shifted," The New York Times, Feb. 4, 2009.

3. Id.