A swarm of armed federal agents raided the world's largest manufacturer of bulletproof vests Wednesday morning, ordering workers to the floor of the Oakland Park factory during a search for illegal immigrants.
The agents were clad in Point Blank Body Armor vests -- custom-crafted by the same workers whose proof of citizenship they demanded.
Factory employees were outraged.
''These are hard-working people,'' said Chuck Naturale, the cutting floor manager. ''They're not on a street corner selling drugs somewhere.''
More than 60 Point Blank workers were handcuffed and hauled by bus to Krome detention center, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. All but eight produced appropriate papers and were later released. Of those eight, only three will be deported.
''I was furious,'' said Efren Perez, 50. ''They sent me from place to place like I was a dog.''
Perez spent nearly a day in custody. Originally from Colombia, he said he has been a resident since 1984.
''This was a disaster,'' he said. ''I didn't commit a crime. I work.''
Point Blank has multimillion-dollar contracts with police, the FBI and U.S. military. The largest private employer in Oakland Park, its payroll of 400 includes many from Latin America.
The factory has been visited by various luminaries, including U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.
After winning a $150-million contract with the U.S. Navy in August, Point Blank considered pulling up stakes in Broward County to move to a larger manufacturing site. It opted to stay.
To accommodate mushrooming demand, the company recently announced plans to double its workforce and expand its 90,000-square foot warehouse. It was not clear Wednesday what effect the raid would have on those plans.
The company released a statement saying it planned to conduct ''business as usual.'' Spiraling demand requires Point Blank to crank out an average of one custom-made bulletproof vest per minute.
EMPLOYEES TELL OF RAID
As federal agents stood vigil around the company's entrances Wednesday -- turning away workers and supply deliveries as they loaded company computers and files onto a moving truck -- Point Blank managers agonized over the day's events.
WAITING, WONDERING: Point Blank employees stand outside the factory Wednesday waiting for word on when they can return to work as agents search for illegal immigrants.
''These are people who make minimum wage,'' Naturale said. ''Making them go without work for a day means somebody's going hungry next week.''
According to employees, about 100 agents descended on the warehouse in the 4000 block of Northeast 12th Terrace at 9 a.m., two hours after workers had taken up their stations at sewing tables.
They poured into the building and shouted for workers to shut off their machines. After herding managers into an office, they instructed workers to sit on the floor.
One at a time, the workers' citizenship papers were examined. Those who lacked proper papers were handcuffed and loaded onto a bus bound for Krome.
Last year, after a similar operation, INS was lambasted for using heavy-handed tactics. Agents were accused of manhandling workers during a raid on a Miami-Dade County flower shop -- shoving them and shouting for immigration papers.
Similar complaints were echoed by Point Blank employees.
They said federal agents shouted unnecessarily at them at the start of the raid, were rude when asked to explain what was going on, and harangued those who asked to retrieve their cars from inside the fenced-in property.
None of the several federal agencies involved in Wednesday's raid at Point Blank would comment on what prompted it. Company managers speculated a disgruntled former employee may have tipped off authorities.
Three of those apprehended in the raid will be deported, the INS said. They are being held at the West Miami-Dade detention center.
Five had outstanding criminal warrants and were freed on bail.