The new year barely started and Three Kings Day hadn’t even gotten underway when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials began raiding homes looking to enforce deportation orders.
In response, the Hispanic community was frantic for answers and looked to advocacy groups and the internet. Online, a social media trail with crumbs of information of raids – including a sobering video of ICE officers inspecting the contents of children’s backpacks in a home raid. Alarm and misinformation gripped the community.
“ICE has been very aggressive in showing its presence,” said Walter Barrientos an organizer with advocacy group Make the Road New York. “Whether they are arresting or not, it’s caused a lot of hysteria and paralyzing fear.”
By the time the weekend was over, 121 people were detained – 12 of whom received a reprieve because they hadn’t yet exhausted their legal options to remain here.
In the wake of the raids, reports of activity were pouring in. Far more than what actually occurred for the relatively small ICE operation. Barrientos said the Long Island office braced for the raids by calling staff back from their vacations early. Besides fielding a barrage of phone calls from people whose cases they are handling, they vetted reports of ICE sightings at a Seventh Day Adventist Church in Brentwood, on various streets and shopping centers. Some claims were unfounded, some had more credibility.
An ICE spokesperson on Thursday denied activity in New York. She also gave information that conflicted with tipster reports that kept coming, even as ICE officials declared the raid over. She said that day laborers had not been targeted at Walmarts and that they hadn’t set up roadblocks, two sightings that were commonly reported to advocacy groups across the country. Similarly, she denied rumors that schools were targeted.
“Many organizations we have been supporting to respond to this moment reported that people are not sending their kids to school. They are afraid of going to work,” said Cristina Jimenez Moreta from United We Dream, an advocacy group that set up a hotline for reporting ICE activity. Hundreds have called the number Moreta she said. “Obviously families are fearful of being detained or targeted.”
The concern kept adults from registering for classes at Make the Road New York, said Barrientos. But schools in areas with large Central American populations such as Hempstead and Brentwood reported steady enrollment. Librarians in those towns said that their story times in fact may have been experiencing a peak, speculating that their participants view the libraries safe zones.
In places like Texas where there was ICE activity, the fear was even more acute.
“In North Texas, there are a lot of folks who are afraid that ICE might show up at their house and deport them,” said Douglas Interiano, founder of Proyecto Inmigrante ICS, Inc., a group that provides legal assistance to immigrants in Texas told the Star- Telegram.
In New Haven, Connecticut, politicians at a rally tried to allay community concerns.
“New Haven police officers, school district employees and other city workers do not and will not act to enforce federal immigration law. Those who represent this city act in support of all residents regardless of documentation and immigration status,” Mayor Toni N. Harp declared.
Meanwhile, law students with the Worker & Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School reported receiving many calls from clients who won the right to remain in this country.
“Many women are suffering from debilitating mental health disorders that make it so that raids have potential to retraumatize the individuals and their children,” said Conchita Cruz, a student intern explaining why her group and others asked ICE to stop the raids. The families may reside among others whose statuses are different from theirs. So though their clients may not be targeted by the raid, they may still have to endure it.
“The raids will stop, hopefully, but the effects of them will be felt no matter what,” Cruz said.
Two days after the first raids were reported, politicians began weighing in.
“Raiding people’s homes to forcibly break families apart is not what our country stands for,” said Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Linda T. Sánchez (D- CA.). “Our federal government should not be separating parents from their children.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D- N.J.) added their voices to the dissenters.
But ICE officials remained committed.
“Any time we are dealing with families and children, it’s going to be difficult,” acknowledged an ICE official. “We are a law enforcement agency. We execute the orders.”
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.