Georgia high school student Marie Justeen Mancha testifies before the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law. Lisa Nipp photo.
Feb. 13, 2008 – 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.
Mancha, now 17, recounted the experience today before the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law. Her congressional testimony was part of a 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 Southern Poverty Law Center 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.
"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 unauthorized 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.
For Mancha, the agents left her home after she answered their questions, telling them that she and her mother are U.S. citizens. Her mother arrived as the agents left.
"I ran to her and started crying — telling her what just happened," Mancha said. "I was so scared. I still am. I carry that fear with me every day — wondering when they'll come back."