SANDUSKY — On her second day of work at Corso’s Flower and Garden Center, Litzy Morales watched as Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents bearing firearms tied her mother’s hands behind her back with rope and plastic handcuffs.
“Don’t cry in front of your siblings,” Litzy’s mother told her.
Litzy’s sister is 11. Her brother is 7.
“You’re the oldest one. You have to be strong for them.”
“OK,” Litzy said. “I love you.”
Moments later, an ICE agent ushered her mother onto a white bus headed for a deportation facility in Michigan. Litzy has not heard from her since.
On Tuesday, ICE agents swarmed two Corso’s locations in Sandusky and Castalia. From the outside, the raids were quiet, neighbors said. But inside, confusion turned to chaos. Many tried to flee; others hid. But ICE agents soon corralled them into groups and cuffed them with ties made of plastic and rope.
Earlier that morning, Litzy, 17, arrived at the Castalia location with her aunt, who also works at the center. She punched in her employee number and waited for her mother to bring gloves. Together, they started tending plants.
Then Litzy saw people fleeing. She heard them yelling “immigration,” but she didn’t believe it at first — not until her mother started running.
Workers scattered, making beelines for potential exits only to reverse directions when they saw agents waiting for them ahead. They called out to each other, suggesting potential escape routes. But agents waited at every turn.
Litzy stopped. She was a citizen; she had nothing to be afraid of.
“I’m not going to run,” she told her mother. “I have papers. I was born here.”
“Just give them your Social Security number,” her mother said — and then she hid.
Norwalk resident Tanya Hernandez recalls the recent arrests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). On Tuesday, ICE agents arrested 114 people suspected of working and residing the country illegally.
Ingrained in the minds of children of immigrants is a mandate unfamiliar to other American youths: memorize your Social Security number because your future might depend on it. But for many, like Litzy, the possibility of a raid seems not-quite-real until one happens.
Combined, the blitzes constitute the largest workplace raid in a decade. The operation, assisted by aerial surveillance, is part of the Trump Administration’s crackdown on employers that hire illegal immigrants — a focus that emerged about a year after the President took office and months after a surge in deportation arrests began.
Among locals, opinion is divided over whether large-scale raids are appropriate measures to curb the immigration of foreign workers — particularly Mexicans — who live and labor without documents. Debates in the House over whether undocumented children in the United States should be given pathways to citizenship have divided politicians, and border security remains a hotly contested issue.
Advertised as a family-owned company, Corso serves seven states with a 160,000-square-foot greenhouse and additional 200,000 square feet to grow perennials. Its Sandusky facility is on the city’s busiest road amid hotels and fast-food joints that cater to tourists who drive by in the summer on their way to Lake Erie and the Cedar Point amusement park.
No criminal charges have been filed against Corso’s. Two locations were searched, and Khaalid Walls, an ICE spokesman, said “a large volume of business documents” were seized. Detainees could be charged with identity theft and tax evasion.
Late Tuesday afternoon — hours after the workers had filed into buses and departed for Michigan — 10 community members congregated at a home in Norwalk. At the gathering, a Mexican-American citizen who was present during the raid at the Sandusky location described to Tanya Hernandez, 23, and her family the alleged events at Corso’s.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made a surprise raid Tuesday, June 5, 2018, at the Sandusky location, pictured, and Castalia location of Corso's Flower & Garden Center.
At Corso’s, ICE agents lured workers — many of whom spoke little English — with donuts, he told Ms. Hernandez. When the workers refused to open the door, ICE agents forced it open and instructed the workers to lie on the ground as they collected the store’s computer and files. The witness told Miss Hernandez that officers pointed guns at the workers — including Americans and children — and secured their hands with plastic cuffs.
“They were really cruel, the way that they took them,” Miss Hernandez said. “They’re not treating them as if they were humans, they’re treating them as if they were animals.”
When asked to comment on ICE’s tactics at Tuesday’s raid, including pointing guns, local labor union activist Baldemar Velasquez said they were “all too common” and called them “gestapo tactics,” adding, “America has to rise up and do better than this.”
Employees working at Corso’s in Sandusky Wednesday declined to comment, saying they had been instructed not to talk to the press. The day after the raid, a human resources officer said reporters were not welcome on the premises.
In Norwalk, a nearby city, one street is home to most of the town’s Mexican population, Miss Hernandez said. Over the past year, almost each day on her way back from work, she saw a border patrol car parked outside a liquor store at the end of the street, she said.
“I honestly think they had this planned for a long time,” Miss Hernandez said of ICE. “They were watching their every move, where they were going.”
On Thursday, Miss Hernandez will baby-sit a four and three-year old who lost their parents in the raid when her father drives a group of neighborhood residents to Michigan for meeting with a lawyer. Those working illegally at other local landscaping businesses are staying home from work, she said. The community expects future raids, and people are staying inside with their doors locked.
In line for questioning, Litzy watched as ICE dogs sniffed out hiding places and grown women cried. She stood by her aunt and thought of her mother, who she knew would be taken if found.
A man in line told her he had run to the hills nearby, but ICE agents had been waiting there, too. Up ahead, Litzy noticed an ICE agent carrying a large gun. Why the agents would need such a weapon, Litzy couldn’t fathom.
“I’m 17,” she said. “Am I supposed to have seen that?”
When an agent called her name, Litzy, who stands about 5 feet tall, walked to the front of the line. She kept still as he looked inside the pouch around her waist for weapons. He checked her pockets and lifted her shirt. He told her to sit with the others.
“I just stared at his eyes, and I just nodded my head.”
Information from The Blade’s news services was used in this report.
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