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Tracking illegal aliens - tactics under fire in Florida

Border Patrol agent Calvin Vaughn slammed his foot down on the accelerator of his patrol car and the chase was on. A few minutes later, he and another agent in a van cornered a white sedan in a trailer court. Three men jumped out of the sedan and escaped into a nearby wooded area.

The fleeing men, thought to be illegal Mexican aliens working in Florida, left behind a pregnant woman, also a Mexican, and two children. A second young woman left behind appeared to be an American citizen and was turned over to local police. Two handguns were found in the locked glove compartment.

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Within hours, the Mexican woman, her two children, and half a dozen men picked up earlier that morning at a roadblock and locked temporarily in the van were being deported to Mexico. The woman told this reporter that she had lived in the United States for three years.

US Border Patrol efforts to catch illegal aliens in Florida were for years little more than a ''token,'' says Bob Adams, the chief Border Patrol agent in this state. This was despite the fact that Florida was becoming a home base for illegal Mexican farm workers, he says.

Within the past year, however, the number of agents has increased from 27 to an authorized force of 90, although the actual number varies. Apprehensions have doubled, from about 400 to 800 a month.

But with the increased apprehensions have come complaints that Border Patrol agents have in some instances violated the civil rights of illegal aliens. Aliens, like US citizens, are accorded such rights under law. In addition, some Hispanic-American citizens mistaken for illegals have complained that their rights have been violated.

Charges include physical abuse, illegal breaking and entry, and separation of children from their parents. Such charges have been made by the American Friends Service Committee, a Roman Catholic priest and two Catholic nuns who minister to illegal aliens, and a migrant organizer in central Florida. The allegations, in most cases, have been detailed in written statements.

A top official of the Immigration and Naturalization Service has assigned two federal INS investigators to Florida for an examination of 16 specific allegations given to him June 20 in Miami on behalf of illegal aliens by a number of activists. The official, Edward O'Connor, southern regional commissioner, explained:

''We promised we would investigate everything. We don't have rookies [as agents] in Florida. We're professional people. . . . If there's anything wrong, we slam them [the agents].'' Mr. O'Connor says some Border Patrol agents elsewhere had been prosecuted in the past for misconduct. He promised to send investigators to Mexico to interrogate the deported aliens making the allegations, if that proves to be necessary to get the facts.

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He attributes the complaints from Florida to the fact that the state is seeing, for the first time, a vigorous effort to catch illegals. Georgia and the Carolinas ''are next,'' for such enforcement, he says.

Florida Border Patrol chief Adams denies any wrongdoing by his agents. ''Our men conduct [themselves] well,'' he said. He adds that the original charges of misconduct came from growers who benefit from the illegal aliens' cheap labor and who often house them in ''deplorable'' conditions. The patrol emphasizes the difficulty of its task, which often involves extraordinary measures to round up illegal aliens and get information from them.

Verne Jervis, an INS spokesman, says charges of misconduct by agents in Florida are being investigated. Some are being studied by the INS Office of Professional Responsibility, he says. In other cases, where there appears to be ''actual or potential injury'' to someone, the allegations have been turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for investigation of possible civil rights violations.

In the past, the Justice Department has prosecuted some Border Patrol agents in Texas and California, Mr. Jervis adds.

Among the specific allegations pending here are these:

On Jan. 10, Juan Romero Sandoval, picked up by local police, was turned over to Border Patrol agents. His signed statement alleges that the agents ''grabbed me by the neck and threw me to the floor, pushed me to another room and handcuffed me. Fifteen minutes later they picked me up and bent upward my arms. This hurt a lot.''

On March 23, Juan Cantera Sandoval was apprehended by Border Patrol agents and locked temporarily in a van. In a statement to Bartolome Colom of the American Friends Service Committee in Florida, he charges that the agents refused his request to see a lawyer and tore up his lawyer's card. When he further complained, ''they picked me out of the van and hit me with a stick. It looked like a police wood stick,'' the statement continues.

Those making the charges and those relaying them to authorities say the rough tactics are part of an effort to force apprehended aliens to admit they are in the US illegally. The Border Patrol denies this. Illegal aliens can be deported without a hearing if they admit they are here illegally.

Border Patrol agents have a duty, but they should do it humanely, says Benito Lopez Jr., a legal resident of Eloise, Fla., and a longtime migrant organizer. He says illegal aliens repeatedly have told him they have been hit by Border Patrol agents and called names.

''They [the Border Patrol] are harassing even US citizens,'' Mr. Lopez says.

A staff member of the Greater Orlando Area Legal Services says a Hispanic US citizen in central Florida has complained that Border Patrol agents walked into his home without a search warrant and entered a bedroom. The Border Patrol denies any wrongdoing. Legal action on the complaint is likely within a few weeks, several sources say. The Border Patrol's task

Catching illegal aliens is no easy task. In El Paso, Texas, this reporter watched many people slip undetected across the border - by ducking through gaps in the border fence, or simply by walking around the end of the fence. They try to blend quickly into the city, then to bypass inland road checks run by the US Border Patrol.

Border Patrol raids on local businesses often end up with agents chasing fleeing illegal aliens down hallways, around buildings, down side streets.

In the farm fields of Florida and other states, the task is even more difficult.

Unless there are enough agents to surround a field, the illegals can escape in one of several ways. They may run away, jump into the nearby brush and hide, or hop in a car and speed away. High-speed chases by agents are part of a day's work, says one agent.

Once caught, illegal aliens face a hearing unless they sign a voluntary departure paper. But separating US citizens from illegals is no easy task either , since many illegal aliens hold counterfeit or illegally obtained documents that make them appear to be legal residents. Agents often must rely on their questioning skills to get the truth from the detainees.

Most of the charges of Border Patrol mistreatment of illegal aliens centers on agents' actions during interrogation of the suspects. To try to detect any cases of misconduct, the INS uses some of its own employees to infiltrate Border Patrol units and investigate agents' conduct, an INS spokesman says.

Next: Life on the run and the proposed federal immigration reforms bill.

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