On January 20 in Ellensburg, more than 50 agents from nine federal, state, and local law-enforcement groups staged one of the largest immigration raids in Washington history, with the lawmen arresting a total of 33 people at 20 separate residences in the Central Washington college town. It was the culmination of a year-and-a-half-long ICE/Homeland Security investigation into "the manufacture and sale of counterfeit work eligibility and identity documents." There was just one hitch: None of the 33 arrested were ever charged with manufacturing any forged documents, and were instead cited for a variety of routine immigration violations. But now, it seems, ICE has finally found their man.
According to a criminal complaint filed August 28 in Eastern Washington federal court, an unnamed suspect arrested in the Ellensburg roundup told ICE special agent Johnny Minyard that Yanez's jewelry store--Joyeria Yanez--on West Walnut Street in Yakima, was "the location where that individual had purchased counterfeit work eligibility and employment documents on two prior occasions."
ICE followed up on the tip, and on March 22 the feds sent an informant into the store to buy phony documents. Yanez told the undercover man he could fix him up with a counterfeit green card and social security card for $300. The 35-year-old Mexico City native made a phone call, and about two hours later Heron Hernandez arrived in a Green Mazda Protege, delivering an envelope. The informant received a phone call shortly thereafter, and with Minyard watching covertly from afar he returned and picked up the forged papers.
ICE repeated the staged buys with different informants on June 8 and July 20, purchasing five sets of forged work documents. On those occasions, Minyard observed Juan Manuel Romo Penafiel deliver the illicit goods in a gray van.
Yanez and Penafiel are now charged with five felonies each, including conspiracy, and transfer of false identification documents. Both men pleaded not guilty on all counts last week, and are currently out on bail. Their trials are scheduled for November 14. Hernandez, the delivery man spotted in the first undercover buy, has apparently not been arrested or charged with a crime.
According to court documents and police reports detailed in Seattle Weekly's report on the Ellensburg raids, the initial lead suspect in ICE's counterfeiting investigation was Gilberto Barrientos-Ariza, the pastor and founder of a small evangelical church in the town. Police kicked-in his door and scoured his home seeking evidence but found nothing to confirm their suspicions that Barrientos-Ariza was the ringleader of a document forging operation. He eventually pleaded guilty to being an illegal immigrant who returned to the U.S. after being deported, and was released in June based on the time he had served since his arrest.
A spokesman for the Eastern Washington U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment on particulars of the recent case, and on its significance in relation to the previous action in Elllensburg. An ICE spokesman said in an e-mail that the agency's investigations, "can frequently play out over months or years of time," and that they seek to "build strong cases and to ensure all members of a criminal conspiracy are held to account for their actions."
Ellensburg residents, meanwhile, say the town--particularly the Hispanic community--is still coping with the fallout from the controversial January raid. Lowell Murphree, spokesman for the Kittitas County Coalition for Human Rights, a citizens' activist group formed in the wake of the January turmoil, says the situation was most dire for families in which both parents were arrested. Citizens rallied to provide temporary housing assistance, but such funding has since run dry.
"Many families directly affected have just disappeared from our community," Murphree says. "I don't see any way that it has turned into a positive. I think a larger part of the non-Hispanic community is more aware of the issues that face the Hispanic community, both documented and not documented. I think we're more sensitive to those issues, but I'm not sure there's a feeling on the part of the Hispanic community that they have any more security than they had before."
Phillip Garrison, a retired Central Washington University professor who operates APOYO, a food bank for the area's needy Hispanic families, says that life has been particularly hard for women who previously made their living as housekeepers at Ellensburg hotels. Many arrested in the January raid were maids who used falsified work documents, including Barrientos-Ariza's wife Maria Morales-Fiero.
"Lots of people remain unemployed," Garrison says. "Work has become scarce here, especially motel work because employers got nervous and began hiring women from Yakima . . . There's certainly less money in circulation in the Mexicano community. Our food-bank numbers are higher than usual. A lot of people are very discouraged, very distrustful."
Murphree says the newest initiative by the Kittitas County Coalition for Human Rights is working with the local sheriff's office in attempt to gain some degree of oversight as the county adopts ICE's "Secure Communities" program, which has come under fire nationwide for deporting undocumented individuals without criminal records, contrary to the program's stated purpose.
"We're trying to establish some sort of dialogue with local law enforcement," Murphree says. "It's just talking about how can we make a workable situation out of what seems to be an unworkable situation."