They came to Nantucket to mow lawns, clean hotel rooms, and build houses. But while living and working on the island, they became victims of crime. One was stabbed, another beaten, another robbed -- all by immigrants like them living in the island's shadow economy.
Usually, such victims, afraid of being deported, spurn police. But this time they cooperated with Nantucket police, who spent months interviewing them and then called federal authorities.
Yesterday at 4 a.m., 30 immigration agents landed on Nantucket on a Coast Guard ship, met local police, and raided several houses. By mid morning, they had arrested 16 immigrants on charges of assault, theft, credit card fraud, drug dealing, and other felonies. Two others were detained for being in the country illegally. All were handcuffed, fitted with orange life preservers, and taken off the island. All face court hearings that could lead to deportation.
The raid, the first such immigration sweep on Nantucket, laid bare some problems facing a growing community, largely hidden from tourists who occupy quaint bed and breakfasts, and from summer residents in multimillion-dollar seaside homes.
According to town officials, 3,000 people -- almost one third of Nantucket's year-round residents -- are immigrants, legal and illegal, mostly from El Salvador and Brazil but also from Europe and the Caribbean. Those arrested yesterday came from Jamaica, Brazil, El Salvador, England, Lith uania, Ireland, and Cuba.
The immigrants, who sustain Nantucket's tourism, have already begun transforming the island's social and political life. Selectmen now greet voters using Spanish, and human services officials attend Masses said in Spanish. And in this case, police said they, too, worked closely with immigrants.
"What I heard from the immigrant community, legal and illegal, is they want to be here because there's a need for work but they don't want to be here in the midst of criminals, just like I don't want to be," said Chief William Pittman . "They want to be safe in America and they have just as much right to that as I do."
Nevertheless, the raid sent fear coursing through the immigrant community, said Camila Monteiro , program director at Community Action Committee of Cape Cod & Islands. She said she received eight calls yesterday from relatives of Brazilians arrested in the raid, and several told her their relatives had never committed crimes.
"The families are just frustrated," Monteiro said. "The employees didn't go to work for fear of being picked up and they are all scared to leave their houses. They're moving in with relatives who have green cards so immigration wouldn't look for them, and they don't even know what's going on with family members who were taken."
Maryanne Worth , director of Nantucket's human services department, said the arrests reflect growing tensions within the immigrant community. She said gangs have begun forming on Nantucket, spawned by rivalries between immigrants from different Latin American countries. Mexicans on Nantucket, for example, tell her they distrust the island's Salvadorans. Many from each country live together in inexpensive rental houses and apartments.
"It is a little surprising for me, but it just tells me that the population is growing and there are probably more problems to come," Worth said.
Pittman said the investigation began six months ago after an assault outside The Muse, an island nightclub. In that case, a patron who had been arguing with other patrons inside got into his car and backed over three people on the street, seriously injuring them, Pittman said. The driver and several witnesses were immigrants, Pittman said, and they initially refused to help police. Some feared being deported . Others feared retribution from fellow immigrants if they cooperated with police.
"We ran into the old brick wall," Pittman said. "There was just a hundred people standing around who were witnesses and yet nobody who saw a thing."
Over the next several weeks, detectives visited witnesses and began hearing of other crimes in the immigrant community. Several victims agreed to help police, despite the disdain of fellow immigrants, he said.
"There was certainly some backlash in the community for 'turning in your brothers.' "
Nantucket police contacted US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, who arrived yesterday aboard the Ida Lewis. Moving from house to house in the predawn hours, they made the 18 arrests. Officials said 16 of those arrested had prior criminal records. Six allegedly had ignored orders to leave the country. And two were arrested after agents crossed paths with them and determined they were in the country illegally. Those immigrants were not the targets of the investigation, officials said.
They can be deported to their native countries if they are in the United States illegally, or if they are not yet citizens and are convicted of felonies.
"First and foremost, my agents prioritize criminal investigations," said Bruce M. Foucart , special agent in charge of the agency's office of investigations in Boston. "So while we need to enforce the immigration laws of the United States, our focus is on criminal investigations and criminal aliens."
Federal immigration officials announced yesterday that the number of illegal immigrants who have failed to show up for immigration hearings or flouted orders to leave the country has dropped for the first time. Between September 2003 and September 2006, that population grew by an average of 5,682 per month, officials said. But it has leveled off over the last eight months and dropped by more than 500 in the last two months, officials said. ICE credited stricter enforcement, a tripling of the number of fugitive operations teams, better intelligence, and more detention space.
In March, federal agents raided Michael Bianco Inc., a leather goods factory in New Bedford, and arrested 361 workers for being in the country illegally. As of early this month, 42 had been deported, 137 remained in custody, and more than half had been released on bail or because they were sick or their children's sole caretakers.
Yvonne Abraham of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.