By KIRK SEMPLE, NYTimes.com, July 24, 2009
After federal border agents detained several Mexican immigrants in western New York in June, an article about the incident in a local newspaper drew an onslaught of vitriolic postings on its Web site. Some were racist. Others attacked farmers in the region, an apple-growing area east of Rochester, accusing them of harboring illegal workers. Still others made personal attacks about the reporter who wrote the article.
Most of the posts were made anonymously. But in reviewing the logs of its Internet server, the paper, The Wayne County Star in Wolcott, traced three of them to Internet protocol addresses at the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees border protection.
Homeland Security started an investigation into the posts this month, according to the reporter, Louise Hoffman-Broach, and Richard M. Healy, the Wayne County district attorney. A spokeswoman for the federal agency’s inspector general said she could neither confirm nor deny an investigation; department rules prohibit the use of office equipment for the personal transmission of material that could offend fellow employees or the public.
Coming on the eve of the apple harvest season, the Web posts and the investigation — first reported this week on The Star’s Web site — have ratcheted up longstanding tensions in Wayne County, where farmers and laborers have accused immigration officials of using heavy-handed tactics like racial profiling and arbitrary or unjustified detentions.
Such tactics, the farmers say, have scared Hispanic farmworkers from the region just as growers are preparing for the harvest.
Representative Dan Maffei, who represents the area in Congress, said the allegations of overaggressive immigration enforcement, coming from a wide range of constituents, were “of extreme concern.”
“I’m investigating these reports to make sure that people’s rights aren’t being harmed and that the economy of Wayne County is not being harmed,” said Mr. Maffei, a Democrat.
A. J. Price, a regional spokesman for United States Customs and Border Protection, defended the work of the area’s officers. “We are constantly criticized for doing our job, and that’s just part of our job,” Mr. Price said.
Local officials and residents say that beginning about 2006, federal officials stepped up their enforcement of immigration laws in western New York.
Farmers and other residents said the push created a climate of fear in communities whose economies depend on migrant laborers, many of them illegal immigrants.
The Obama administration has moved to a less confrontational policy at work sites, focusing on employers. But Customs and Border Protection, which does not conduct work-site inspections, had not changed its strategy in New York, Mr. Price said.
The latest flare-up began with a boat trip on June 12. A local farmer, Robert Norris, decided to take a Mexican employee and relatives of another worker for a spin on Lake Ontario, Ms. Hoffman-Broach said.
Federal agents stopped the boat because it had too many people on board, Mr. Price said. When some of the passengers were unable to produce documentation proving they were citizens or legal immigrants, he said, they were detained. All but one was eventually released, The Star reported.
The article about the arrests, posted on June 16, led to a torrent of angry Web postings. One, sent from a fake e-mail address, said, “watcha doing to mi wifey, no checky her papeles. she no legal, but she havey benifit card.”
A response, which carried a Homeland Security Internet protocol address, read: “That sounds like my boyfriend. Leave him alones and get your own. My boyfriend works sometimes but he is really good at getting FREE benefits from the Federal and State government.”
Another post, apparently sent from a separate computer linked to Homeland Security, read in part: “These farmers have a problem because the gravy train that they were riding for soooooo long is being brought to light.”
The newspaper removed the posts. It also reported that it had discovered others, dating to last year, that appeared to have come from computers affiliated with Homeland Security.
A version of this article appeared in print on July 25, 2009, on page A19 of the New York edition.