HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Neighbors of Elvira Carvajal sought refuge in her house so immigration agents wouldn't arrest them. Friends of Herman Martinez asked him to bring them milk for their children because they were afraid to step onto the streets.
In the weeks leading up to the huge pro-immigrant rallies in the spring of 2006, rumors swirled that authorities were on the streets rounding up illegal immigrants across the country. Fear of being caught and deported kept many illegal immigrants, and some legal ones, in their homes.
Nonworksite arrests did indeed jump in the first half of 2006, up 75 percent over the previous year, according to Homeland Security data released to The Associated Press.
However, Immigration and Customs Enforcement insists the increase did not come from random sweeps but from its standing policy of making specific arrests, and that more than two-thirds of those detained already had deportation orders.
"We've said over and over that we don't do random sweeps. We do targeted enforcement," agency spokeswoman Jamie Zuieback said.
ICE maintains that it targets people it considers fugitives, those who remain in the United States despite a deportation order. However, during a search for fugitives, agents can also detain individuals they suspect of being in the country illegally in so-called "collateral arrests."
Since the department was created in 2003, it has steadily arrested more people as its budget and resources have grown, Zuieback said. The spike in detentions is "not in the least bit political," she said.
In the first three months of 2006, ICE's fugitive operations program arrested 3,222 people nationwide, according to information released last month, 10 months after the AP filed a Freedom of Information Act request. That compared to the 2,174 people arrested in the same period of 2005.
During the height of the 2006 immigration debate, from April through June, the number of arrests jumped to 4,516. That was more than double the 2,234 arrests for the same period of 2005.
ICE's numbers don't include worksite arrests, which more than tripled between fiscal year 2005 and fiscal year 2006, from 1,292 to 4,383.
Zuieback rejected the notion that the arrests were a timed show of force. "I think we've been very clear that our mandate is to enforce the law, and that's what we intend to do," she said.
Professor Alex Stepick, who heads Florida International University's Immigration & Ethnicity Institute, disagreed. He believes the Bush administration both stepped up arrests and allowed the rumors to build to assuage the president's conservative base as Congress considered whether to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
"The residual concern on the part of immigrants is part of the Bush administration's policy," he said. "They want to show they are doing something to control immigration."
Last year's demonstrations began in response to legislation that would have redefined illegal immigrants as criminals.
In late March 2006, tens of thousands students walked out of classes. More than 500,000 people took to the streets in Los Angeles alone. On April 1, thousands formed a mile-long line across New York City's Brooklyn Bridge. And despite the rumors of arrests, on May 1 more than a million people demonstrated nationwide.
Even if the random sweeps weren't real, the fear they generated was, said Martinez, a community organizer in Homestead, a town about 30 miles south of Miami that is dominated by immigrants who come to work on South Florida farms.
Carvajal, an advocate with the farmworkers' association in Homestead, said many parents kept their children home from school.
Attendance in prenatal classes fell during the week before the May 1 protests, and even women with high-risk pregnancies refused to go to the clinic, said Natalia Coletti, who works at the Healthy Start Coalition of Miami-Dade County.
"We are still afraid, but now we are more used to that fear," said Homestead resident Lucia de la Cruz, who fled violence in Guatemala more than a decade ago.