What happens after an ICE raid
Targeting undocumented immigrants affects our entire community
The first time I noticed the scars left by deportations was while I was volunteering as a translation assistant in a legal office serving migrant workers in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I was translating testimonies of unimaginable violence in El Salvador from Spanish into English hunched over a desk alone, trying to process what I was reading. I had to take breaks every so often those first few days. I was 16 and couldn’t imagine people doing these things to each other. By the end of my time there, I could slide on my mask and state the facts in a cold, detached voice that becomes necessary when you spend so many hours of your life engulfed in sadness.
There are few sounds as universally heartbreaking as someone choking on their grief. I felt it echo in my own heart, shattered each time I watched clients process that a loved one had disappeared, because they have been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and would be sent back to the dangers that haunted them in their dreams. They feared for the fate of their detained loved ones, but they also had to navigate the grief of watching their dreams die. The hope that helped them make impossible decisions was crumbling between their fingers.
I held onto my hope by watching the lawyers in that office do their jobs and juggle many complicated cases, all while making enough jokes so their clients could find reasons to laugh. I also loved spending time with the families who came into the office. I remember a little boy telling me that his father had disappeared in the night. I asked him what he meant and he told me that his father had gone to work one morning and “never came home.” Now they could only see him when “he was in a cage.”
I made eye contact with his mother, her sadness made my heart clench. “What he means,” she said, “is his father was detained while he was driving home from work and now the only times we can see him is when we go to the detention center.”
His lawyer told me that the father had been detained when he was pulled over for a having a taillight out on his car. Because he was undocumented he was driving without a license, and he was taken into the police station where he was detained, now awaiting trial for deportation.
I watched this little boy struggle to make sense of what was happening. He assured me, as I already knew, that his father wasn’t a bad man. He worked hard and didn’t deserve to be in jail. I watched the mother hold her son and rock him gently in her lap, maybe more to center herself than to calm him.
She told me she was worried about leaving her son at home alone when she needed to go to work or pick up groceries, but they were just too worried to send him back to school. The mother was struggling with difficult questions about how to weave herself back into a community that promised contradictions. Her neighbors were kind and smiled to her, but the police and the authority figures had taken her husband away from her family.
Could she ever exist in the light, or would they always need to hide?
I would see similar rips in the fabric of communities across Massachusetts and later Connecticut while I was working with immigrant communities as a student organizer. This sort of routine detention is deeply damaging to the trust between immigrant families and their larger communities, but it pales in comparison to the terror of an ICE raid.
When I arrived in New Haven in 2009 as a freshman at Yale, the scars of an ICE raid in 2007 were still healing. New Haven had been excitedly preparing to roll out their Elm City ID card and making efforts to weave its immigrant community into the fabric of the city. In the weeks leading up to the Elm City ID card launch, New Haven was shaken by what the New Haven Register described as “retaliatory raids.” A city bubbling with excitement shifted to horror in a single night.
The ID program was part of an effort to crack down on violent crime in the city. Researchers had noticed a spike on days when undocumented workers were typically paid and were walking around carrying a week’s wage in cash. This made them the targets of frequent armed robberies and occasionally murders. Many immigrant communities are afraid to come forward and report crimes. They have many reasons to fear local government and especially the police as the enforcement arm of local government.
According to Assistant Chief Luiz Casanova, who supported the program early on, “At least 90 percent of my robbery victims were Hispanics and Hispanic immigrants. People got murdered in the district and we couldn’t get people to come forward.” Leaders within the police force recognized that security in the city would improve if community members from pre-dominantly immigrant neighborhoods also felt safe coming forward to report crimes. They set forth a goal for the police to adopt a “don’t tell” policy towards immigration status for citizens who came forward to report crimes or seek help from the police. The city did not view its immigrant population as a threat, but as a source of growth, new businesses, and a vibrant community.
At the urging of several groups within New Haven, particularly programs that serve the immigrant communities like Unidad Latina en Acción (ULA) and Junta for Progressive Action, City hall formed this ID program in partnership with local banks to create an electronic option or allow workers to be paid with checks. “We’re just dealing with our reality, which is that a significant portion of our population is undocumented, and they are a significant part of our work force,” said Mayor John DeStefano, when the program was criticized.
Unfortunately, the ID cards also created a list of undocumented community members that ICE found tempting to seize for their enforcement purposes. New Haven refused, and local officials believe that ICE responded by carrying out several raids. Armed agents stormed into several homes without search warrants in the middle of the night, demanding their papers and frightening families.
The aftermath of an ICE raid is devastating to a community. For cities like New Haven and numerous other places in the United States, undocumented immigrants form an important part of our labor force. Many current business models rely on cheap and reliable labor and increasing numbers of them turn to the informal economy to supply that labor. Unless there is a serious overhaul of our labor system and how we support workers, the business community quietly depends on undocumented workers to fill numerous jobs. This means workers become part of our communities, whether one chooses to see and acknowledge them or not. It also means that when workers do not feel safe coming to work, they disappear. The increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement laws that passed across the American south in 2012, like Georgia’s HB87, meant there were serious labor shortages when undocumented workers disappeared from farms and construction sites nearly overnight.
After an ICE raid, the trust that holds a community together shatters. In New Haven, the undocumented members of our community disappeared from view. Public spaces where people used to gather at the end of the workday remained empty. Fewer children were allowed to laugh and play outside. They learned to exist quietly in the shadows. Community members quickly closed their doors whenever cop cars went by, some became targets of crime that went unreported because they did not want to interact with the police. Workers report their workplace abuses much less frequently, often at an increasingly high cost as their employers threaten them with promises of “alerting immigration authorities if you misbehave.”
Wage theft, sexual abuse, unsafe working conditions, and numerous other workplace violations accumulate without a strong community to defend its workers.
Even worse, children grow up believing that even their homes are not safe and perhaps they are always being hunted. They see that strange, armed men could break into their homes at any hour of the day and haul off their parents. This is not an image that children, really anyone, easily recovers from or forgets. After that, how do you encourage them to report a crime? They will not see this branch of government enforcement, and by affiliation the local government, as a group designated to “protect and serve” them too.
All of this damage takes years to repair and impacts the rest of the community within a city. New Haven did not give up on rebuilding relationships with its immigrant communities. Between July 24 and September 2007, New Haven issued 3,200 cards Elm City IDs. By 2012, this figured jumped to 10,000 cards. Local police were pleased to see that people began reporting crimes much more after the ID came out. Those who opposed the card were worried it would attract an overwhelming number of new migrants, but the local government reported that this was not the case. The Assistant Chief of police reported that crime rates fell by 20% in one predominantly immigrant neighborhood in the first two years of the program.
As a young organizer, I was deeply inspired by the work of leaders like Kica Matos and Latrina Kelly at Junta and the creative and courageous organizers within ULA. I was grateful to work in a state that protects workers as workers, regardless of their immigration status and was willing to investigate workplace abuse cases filed by undocumented workers. I was grateful to see a police force that wanted to support all of its communities, regardless of immigration status.
In the years that followed, it felt like New Haven was increasingly at odds with the federal government. Though some of these claims were disputed, we watched headlines suggesting that Obama’s immigration policies deported more immigrants than Bush had. As the US prepared for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, I remember asking Jose Antonio Vargas during his visit to Yale why we should stay hopeful. Was this administration really worth supporting and advocating for when it had done so much to hurt our communities? In 2012, I would experience that heart stopping fear that ICE would return again with Secure Communities. And thankfully, New Haven would stand up to the Secure Communities Act as it rolled out in Connecticut.
2012 brought us many reasons to hope for a better future. That year, 11 of the immigrants whose homes had been raided in 2007 were awarded a settlement with the federal government for $350,000. Justice was served five years after the ICE raids through the hard work of community members and Yale Law School volunteers in the immigration clinic. The day of the ruling, I remember feeling the warm glow of hope. New Haven isn’t alone in defending its communities.
The rhetoric towards immigrants and undocumented workers during the 2016 presidential election was really difficult to stomach, especially when the large crowds would chant “build the wall.”
Since the inauguration, there has been plenty of both bad and confusing news in terms of deportations, the wall, and, of course, the travel ban. More recently, Attorney General Sessions has threatened to withdraw funding the “sanctuary cities,” claiming they violated federal law. PolitiFact ruled his claims an “exaggeration.” He also claimed housing undocumented migrants within a sanctuary city was to “endanger lives” of Americans.
The sentiments of New Haven’s police force are echoed by governments in Boston, New York, Santa Fe, and numerous other cities that have declared themselves to be sanctuary cities. As Boston pointed out, “We do not have any policies that run contrary to federal immigration laws,” and the city asked for further clarification on what rules were broken. Their decision not to commit their local law enforcement resources towards providing the Federal government with immigration enforcement agents is currently their decision to make. And it can be very expensive to do so. For example, local law enforcement is asked to hold migrants in local jails until ICE can come to collect them, which puts a strain on local resources. Many of these cities argue that being forced to detain undocumented individuals when they have any interaction with the police means fewer people come forward to report crimes.
There are so many components of our immigration system that are broken that it’s difficult to imagine what the future of immigration looks like here. And there is darkness, but there is also so much hope. I never imagined that someone like the incredible activist Lorella Praeli would be able to do the work she did in the last few years with United We Dream and then the Clinton campaign. I am regularly inspired by the creativity and persistence shown by immigration rights activists, even when the future seems so uncertain.
It takes a long time to heal a community after an ICE raid or a family after a deportation, and the scars never completely go away. That said, there are so many activists and families who share their stories about what they left behind to come to the United States and remain optimistic about this country and their futures here. I came to the US as an immigrant from Mexico when I was a child, but my mother is American and I have dual citizenship. I have never had to hide in the shadows and still there are times now when I am deeply afraid for my family. I volunteer, because I believe in all of our communities and our future as a country. Sometimes the fight feels helpless, there is so much to lose. But there are few things that feel as reassuring as watching other communities of your city, communities who are not even remotely affected by the deportations, show up to immigration reform rallies and stand beside our families. I will always stand beside them.