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Journey of Hope Ends in Terror for Immigrants

April 7, 1996

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The journey born of hope and desperation ended in terror _ at least 19 immigrants crammed into a pickup, its camper shell disintegrating in a high-speed flight from the law.

When the truck finally came to a stop, Alicia Sotero Vazquez was still too frightened to flee the baton-wielding deputies.

``Everyone was screaming, `Run! Run!′ But I didn’t. I said to officers, `I’m here.′ ... I didn’t do anything wrong. I merely came here to work,″ she said later from a hospital bed.

Because she didn’t run, Sotero has become a focus in a debate over illegal immigrants and what authorities can do to stop them.

Sotero has said she came north from the slums of Xochiaca, a Mexico City suburb, after the clothing factory where she worked closed down.

``The desperation drove her to leave for the United States,″ her mother, Genoveva Vazquez, said in an interview in Mexico City.

Many of the people on the truck were farm workers who are uncomfortable with all the media attention, said Bobbi Murray, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which is representing 17 of the 19 immigrants.

``Friends told them there was work in the strawberry fields,″ Murray said.

Two sheriff’s deputies, Tracy Watson and Kurtis Franklin, were placed on paid leave after a videotape captured them beating Sotero and companion Enrique Funes following the 80-mile chase.

Thousands of chanting, sign-waving demonstrators jammed streets in downtown Los Angeles Saturday to protest the beating and to call for the arrest and prosecution of the deputies.

The protesters, including social, labor and political activists, marched to City Hall shouting ``Justicia!″ and carrying signs saying ``Police Abuse is a Crime″ and ``Justice and Equality Now.″ The crowd, estimated at 6,000, was peaceful, police said.

Across town, meanwhile, some 200 people demonstrated outside a federal building in support of law enforcement. Among their demands was the militarization of the U.S. Mexico border to stop illegal immigration.

Rather than flee with the others, Funes, identified as Sotero’s common-law husband, jumped from the back of the truck and helped her and another person out of the cab after the truck rolled to a stop.

An attorney has prepared a $10 million claim against Riverside County on his behalf. The lawyer, Peter Schey, also is seeking $10,000 for Santiago Garcia Pedroza, who allegedly was roughed up.

``I don’t know why they treated our friends like that. We didn’t do any crime. I came to work. I didn’t come to be a criminal,″ said Eduardo Roman Garcia, one of the 19 immigrants captured after the chase. The driver of the truck apparently got away, police have said.

Funes, also from Xochiaca, was unemployed and looking for work, his relatives have said.

Life was equally harsh for Eduardo Roman Garcia, a 29-year-old father of two from Veracruz. The auto body shop where he worked closed, so he left for the United States to find similar work.

Just south of the border, he met a man who offered to take him and several others to Los Angeles for $400 apiece if they could get across the border on their own. It took them two days, traveling day and night when not hiding from the Border Patrol, to reach the rendezvous near San Diego, said Murray.

When the pursuit began, Roman Garcia feared the pickup would overturn. Speeds reached 100 miles per hour and the camper shell that had concealed the immigrants began to peel away under the force of the air.

``We were panicking,″ Roman Garcia said during a Thursday news conference.

Roman Garcia says he’s optimistic now. He and the other immigrants will be allowed to stay in the United States at least six months to assist in the investigations into the chase and beatings.

Under the terms of their release by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, they can apply for permits to work while they are here. In the meantime, the Mexican government is providing housing.

``I feel good ... free in having the right to go where I please, to get a job,″ he said.

An attorney for Sotero, David Ross, said that actor Marlon Brando called him three times trying to arrange for the couple to stay with him, but that arrangements were still pending.

Brando also made his offer publicly Friday night on CNN’s ``Larry King Live.″

``I’ve invited her to come to stay at my home ... and her husband, to give them perhaps a different perspective,″ Brando said. ``Because the perspective they have of America I think is not entirely accurate. I think there are many people who are very sympathetic toward her.″

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