By JULIA PRESTON
Published: January 18, 2010
The Guatemalan government has issued a public protest after three Guatemalans were arrested this month by immigration agents at a Federal Express office in Florida, when one of the immigrants went to pick up a package containing his newly issued Guatemalan passport.
Suspecting that the passport was fraudulent, Federal Express officials called Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to alert them when the Guatemalans arrived to collect the package, officials of the immigration agency said. Two of the Guatemalans were illegal immigrants who have been deported, and one is in deportation proceedings.
Guatemalan diplomats said that Federal Express and American officials had examined and seized legitimate passports without notifying them and had improperly disrupted their dealings with Guatemalan citizens living in this country. Felipe Alejos, the Guatemalan consul in Miami, said the events appeared to violate basic diplomatic protocols.
“They seized official documents, and they did not let us know,” Mr. Alejos said. “There was coordination between FedEx and ICE to detain people.”
Federal Express officials said they had followed routine company procedures when they contacted immigration authorities after detecting packages that suggested organized document fraud. Officials from the immigration agency, known as ICE, said they arrested the Guatemalans only after two of them tried to flee from the Federal Express office. Both the company and the immigration agency denied that they had collaborated to lure the immigrants to the office.
The arrests started a rumor mill of fears in communities along the Florida coast, where many immigrants, both legal and illegal, have settled.
“When people in the community perceive that FedEx acted as an agent for immigration, it undermines their belief that they can collect their mail and trust in their government,” said John De León, a lawyer for the Guatemalan consulate in Miami.
The now disputed chain of events began in November when Guatemalan consular officials based in Miami held a daylong session in Jupiter, Fla., to help Guatemalans in the area resolve problems with birth certificates, passports and other documents. Dozens of Guatemalans signed up for new or renewed passports, which are useful as a form of identification in this country.
The Guatemalan government prints and distributes passports for its citizens living in the United States through a private company, De La Luz, in Metairie, La. In December, the company sent the new passports in Federal Express packages to the Guatemalans who had applied for them.
At least 30 packages could not be delivered to the addresses listed, said a Federal Express spokeswoman, Allison Sobczak, and the shipper in Louisiana did not respond to telephone calls. FedEx employees opened several packages searching for better address information, she said.
“This was a normal routine for us to open a package and inspect it to try to get a correct shipping address,” Ms. Sobczak said. Since the passports included no paperwork indicating they were official, Federal Express contacted ICE “to make sure the documents were legitimate,” she said.
Damaris Roxana Vasquez, 21, a Guatemalan living in Jupiter, said that on Jan. 6, she and three Guatemalan men drove to a Federal Express office in Riviera Beach to pick up a new passport for one of the men. When they arrived, she said in an interview, Federal Express employees told them to wait because they could not locate the package.
Federal Express employees called ICE agents, who were already on their way to the office, to advise them that customers had come to pick up a suspect package, ICE officials said. When the agents arrived, two of the men tried to flee, said an ICE spokeswoman, Nicole Navas. One escaped; the other two men and Ms. Vasquez were detained, and the men later deported. Ms. Vasquez has been released while her deportation case proceeds. Her 5-year-old son, who was with her, was not detained because he is a United States citizen.
ICE seized the undelivered passports, agency officials said. After an investigation showed they were legitimate, ICE officials returned them to the Guatemalan consulate last week.
“Document fraud poses a severe threat to national security and public safety,” Ms. Navas said.