By N.C. Aizenman
Federal immigration authorities converged on a Prince William County construction company just before sunrise yesterday, arresting 34 Latin American nationals for being in the country illegally.
Workplace raids are rare in the Washington area, and the roundup at CMC Concrete Construction in the Manassas area appears to be the largest in the region in nearly two years, according to a review of news releases on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Web site.
The workers -- who come from Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica and El Salvador -- are being charged administratively and are in ICE custody undergoing deportation proceedings, said Ernestine Fobbs, a spokeswoman for the customs agency.
News of the arrests spread quickly through an immigrant community already on edge after a county law took effect this month allowing Prince William police to check the immigration status of people stopped for other infractions.
Fobbs said the agency had executed two search warrants in connection with the operation. Because those warrants were under seal, Fobbs said, she could not discuss how or why the company had drawn federal attention, nor confirm that CMC Concrete Construction was the agency's target.
James Rybicki, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said no employers had been charged. But he added, "Obviously, we'll be reviewing the case for possible criminal charges."
Public records identify Felisberto J. Magalhaes as the president of CMC and Maria Brandao Magalhaes as its secretary and treasurer. A relative of the owners who entered the company's administrative suite in a Manassas office complex yesterday afternoon to meet with several ICE agents declined to comment.
A few miles away, at a large lot where CMC workers come to pick up equipment before heading out to job sites each day, about a dozen remaining workers stood in groups discussing the morning's events.
A 32-year-old Mexican man, who asked that his name not be published for fear of retaliation from his bosses or the government, said he and three others had driven off the lot in one of the company's pickup trucks when they noticed a silver van behind them flashing police lights.
"We thought maybe we had run a light or there was something wrong with the plates -- we figured at worst we were going to get a traffic ticket," he said.
Instead, the man said, an armed immigration agent leaned in the window and demanded identification.
"Everyone grew very quiet. We were horribly sad, but more than anything, resigned," the man said.
He said agents were able to retrieve records demonstrating that CMC had successfully sponsored him for legal permanent residency years ago. But he said two colleagues in the truck had no such proof to offer and were handcuffed, along with five workers riding in a pickup behind them.
Minutes after the roadside detentions, other workers said, immigration agency vehicles entered the lot and more than a dozen agents fanned out in pursuit of several fleeing workers.
When the Mexican worker finally reached the lot, he learned that his younger brother was among those taken away.
"You feel so impotent, to see someone you know, who is just trying to work, go through this and to not be able to help him," he said.