Family looking for justice after deadly INS raid
- July 28, 2002, 2:54PM
Family looking for justice after deadly INS raid
By EDWARD HEGSTROM
Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle
BRYAN -- More than a year after a government raid led to the injury and subsequent death of a Mexican immigrant, the case remains unresolved and friends of the victim worry it may soon be forgotten.
The death of Serafin Olvera never created much of an outcry, despite evidence that he suffered a severe beating that was initially covered up by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Olvera's neck was broken at the time of the March 2001 raid, leaving him paralyzed.
Court papers filed on behalf of his family allege that INS agents attempted to force Olvera to walk after his spinal cord injury, picking him up repeatedly and then letting him fall to the floor as he screamed in agony.
Records also indicate that the longtime Houston resident, an illegal immigrant, was not offered medical care for several hours. Once hospitalized, he received emergency surgery but never recovered. He was placed on a respirator and died Feb. 25.
Government civil rights attorneys are said to have spent more than a year conducting a criminal investigation of the case, though they will not comment on the results. In the meantime, a civil lawsuit on behalf of Olvera's five U.S.-citizen children is stalled, and what little public attention the case initially drew has vanished.
"What comparable crime of assault and murder goes so long in the United States, with so much evidence at hand, before someone is arrested?" Sean Lyons, the attorney for the Olvera family, asks in a document filed in a San Antonio federal court earlier this year.
Some experts say they are not surprised that Olvera's death has not become a cause celebre as have such cases as the death of Luis Torres, whose violent arrest at the hands of Baytown police has been denounced by the Mexican government and national Hispanic groups. Raids conducted in small towns typically go unnoticed by the public, according to observers.
"Much of the work of the INS is done outside the limelight," said Joe Vail, a University of Houston law professor who runs a legal clinic helping immigrants. "It's a major problem. Rights are violated all the time, but the immigrant remains quiet or gets deported and the incident is just forgotten."
That is particularly true in rural areas, where local police are more likely to cooperate with immigration authorities and watchdog groups are not there to help, Vail said.
The criticism is not limited to Texas.
In Washington state, a group spent months in 1998 uncovering abuses that happened during INS raids in rural areas. In most cases, the Washington Alliance for Immigrant and Refugee Justice concluded, the incidents were never publicized.
"Despite the fact that the INS has more armed employees than any other federal law enforcement agency, there is no institutional mechanism for community oversight of its activities," the group's report, "Civil Rights Under Siege," concluded.
"As a result, individuals who suffer abuses during INS operations lack effective recourse, and the American public lacks accurate information about what actually occurs when armed agents enter workplaces, health clinics, homes and businesses to conduct immigration raids."
With only slightly different circumstances, a case like Olvera's might not have come to the attention of the public at all. Maria Jimenez, a local immigrant rights activist who has followed the case, claims Olvera's death was investigated only because he had U.S. citizen relatives who insisted on it.
About 20 illegal Mexican immigrants were in the Bryan house at the time of the raid and all were sent back to Mexico before they had a chance to make a declaration in the case, Jimenez said. Olvera's brother, Gelasio, went to the Mexican state of Veracruz and brought witnesses to the border to be interviewed by U.S. investigators.
"If the family didn't bring them back from Mexico, there would be no witnesses," Jimenez said. And the witnesses gave a different version of events from that of the INS, which initially claimed Olvera suffered his injury in a work-related accident a few days before his arrest.
A spokesman for the INS refused to comment on the Olvera case for this article because the case remains under investigation.
Serafin Olvera was raised on a small farm in the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi, where his father lacked sufficient land to support a growing family. Like many young Mexican men, Olvera and his brother Gelasio decided to look for a better future in the north. Serafin sneaked across the Rio Grande and came to Houston in 1977, when he was 23. Gelasio came a couple of years later.
The two brothers met two Mexican sisters, and they began double dating, which led to marriages and children. Gelasio and his wife eventually managed to get work visas, putting them on the track to become U.S. citizens. Serafin's wife, Socorro, also became a citizen.
But for reasons that are not clear -- perhaps simple inattention -- Serafin never became a citizen. He eventually applied for permanent residency as the husband of a U.S. citizen, which meant he carried a legal work visa for years. But Serafin and Socorro divorced in the mid-1990s, which meant he no longer qualified for a green card. He simply let his work visa expire, according to the family.
Known to friends as "Chino," Olvera was a gregarious man who had friends in many parts the country. "He was a fun person, and he was always smiling," recalled Gelasio.
He did not have a temper, and he never got in trouble with the law, his brother said. Serafin never picked a fight, partly because he wasn't the fighting type but also because he was just too small, his brother said.
Olvera's driver's license listed him as 5 feet 9 inches tall, weighing 150 pounds.
While Gelasio Olvera settled down as a carpenter with a regular job, Serafin remained a jack-of-all-trades who would go wherever he could find work in construction, sometimes even working as far away as Minnesota. In the spring of last year, that work took him to Bryan, where he was painting houses. Olvera befriended a group of undocumented workers from Veracruz state who were sharing a house on West 28th Street, in a traditionally ethnic neighborhood. Olvera stayed with them.
Though many workers stayed in the house, neighbors had no complaints.
"They were very peaceful, very well-behaved," said Gloria Longoria, who lives next door. The men never made noise and they never had women over, which indicated to Longoria that they were interested in working hard instead of partying.
Longoria said she didn't remember meeting Olvera, and she had only minimal contact with the other men. The men slaughtered a pig at Christmastime, and they came over on Dec. 24 to offer the Longorias chicharron, the Mexican version of fried pork rinds.
Most people who come to Bryan find a way to fit in, said Longoria, who arrived from Mexico more than 25 years ago and raised a family here.
"There is no racism in Bryan," she said.
Others are more critical.
The Hispanic Forum, a group of local Latino leaders, has criticized local police and sheriff's deputies for sometimes stopping Hispanics just because they look foreign.
"In cases of Hispanics or people who look like they could be from Mexico, (police) will ask where they were born, and then they will ask for proper documentation," said Steve Gongora, a Bryan businessman and member of the Hispanic Forum. Hispanics who cannot show proper identification are jailed, and the INS is notified, Gongora said.
Gongora said the members of the Hispanic Forum have met with police to ask that they end racial profiling and stop cooperating so closely with the INS.
Across the nation, the debate over what the INS and local police should do to enforce immigration laws raged even before Sept. 11. Groups that oppose mass immigration call on law enforcement at all levels to work together in rounding up and deporting those here illegally. Immigrant advocacy groups called for a more measured response.
Before the terrorist attacks, the advocacy groups appeared to be winning some important victories, at least in urban areas, where the INS largely curtailed its practice of raiding houses.
In 1993, the INS led a raid on a southwest Houston house in search of a Jamaican fugitive. The Houston Police Department and the U.S. Marshal's Service escorted the immigration agents, as is standard procedure.
After pounding on the door and entering with guns drawn, the agents discovered a U.S. citizen family living in the house, because the Jamaican had moved months earlier. It was then revealed that the INS had not obtained a search warrant before the raid. The resulting news reports were embarrassing to the INS and HPD.
Such house raids became less common in Houston and other big cities in recent years. HPD now has a policy that it will not notify immigration authorities about someone in the country illegally.
But advocates say it is a different story in the countryside, where the INS continues to conduct raids, often working with the full cooperation of local police. Those who do outreach with the immigrants claim the operations often involve rights abuses.
"I would say that in 60 or 70 percent of the cases we hear about, the INS enters the house without a warrant," said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights. Garcia said the INS often conducts its work based on hunches -- agents will scout a house where they believe illegal immigrants are living. But a hunch is not enough to get a judge to grant a search warrant, which requires probable cause.
Instead of getting a warrant, the INS will typically pound on the door and shout "Immigration!" Garcia said. If the person opens the door and steps aside, the agents take that as permission to enter.
"Most of the time, people will not block the door," Garcia said.
It is not clear whether the INS had a warrant to raid the house where Olvera was staying. A woman whose home was raided the day before as part of the same operation said INS agents did not have permission to enter her house.
"They didn't have a warrant," said Lilia Cabrera, a legal U.S. resident whose son was deported.
A statement issued by the INS after the raid noted that "U.S. Immigration agents were given permission to search" the house where Olvera was staying.
The raid occurred about 8:15 a.m. on Sunday, March 25, 2001, but the public didn't learn about it until three days later. Initially, the only source of information was the federal government. The first reports did not offer much evidence of wrongdoing, and they indicated that Olvera had been arrested as part of a weekend operation in search of criminal fugitives.
The government initially claimed that Olvera shoved an agent during the arrest. Olvera was then restrained and handcuffed with "minimal force," INS spokesman Denton Lankford told the Bryan-College Station Eagle. Lankford said Olvera was hospitalized because of an injury he had suffered to his leg on the job a few days before the arrest.
La Voz Hispana, a Spanish-language magazine, offered a similar quote from an unnamed government source who also blamed Olvera's injury on a workplace accident.
But an autopsy report recently released by the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office concludes that Olvera died from complications caused by a severe blow to the neck, which damaged his spinal cord and left him a quadriplegic.
The report says this neck injury happened during the raid and makes no mention of a workplace injury to his leg days earlier. It lists his death as a homicide.
In a recent interview, Lankford said he did not remember making declarations about the Olvera case.
"I don't recall that," he said, when reminded of what he said to the Eagle. "I get probably 30 media calls a day," making it hard to remember each one, he said. Lankford said the case happened so long ago that he did not remember the name of Serafin Olvera until he looked in his files. After noticing that the case remains under investigation, Lankford said he could not comment on the specifics.
When his family finally tracked Olvera down in a San Antonio hospital the following day, his brother said, Olvera was barely able to talk. Emergency surgery was conducted and tubes were put into his body to supply him with food and water. Olvera never spoke again.
The INS shipped all of the Mexicans who were in the house back to Mexico the same day of the raid. The Mexican consulate in Houston agreed to help Olvera's family attempt to uncover what occurred, by paying the expenses to find the witnesses in Mexico and bring them back for interviews. The witnesses were interviewed by federal investigators, and they also provided information used in the civil lawsuit filed by Lyons on behalf of the Olvera family.
According to the lawsuit, Olvera was unarmed at the time of his arrest and did not provoke the beating. Lyons said an agent thrust a knee into Olvera's back after he was already restrained, which is believed to be what left Olvera paralyzed.
The agents then tried to make Olvera walk, the lawsuit says. He was finally taken to the bus and laid flat. For reasons not made clear, an agent sprayed Olvera with pepper spray while he lay on the bus unable to move, according to the lawsuit.
Olvera was transported to the Comal County Jail, where he was taken off the bus and laid on the concrete at the entrance, according to the lawsuit. A jail nurse said Olvera could not be admitted in his condition, and so he was taken to McKenna Memorial Hospital in New Braunfels. He was then airlifted to another hospital in San Antonio.
Lyons said he did not know why Olvera was driven more than 100 miles from Bryan to Comal County while critically ill. But he noted that the INS officers were based out of San Antonio, so Comal County was close to their base. At least five hours passed between Olvera's injury and his admission to the first hospital, Lyons said.
The government has asked to delay the family's lawsuit in order to allow more time for a criminal investigation.
But Lyons argues that the government has had plenty of time to investigate, and he has pleaded with the judge to allow the case to go forward