At the very start of 2016 – practically as the clock struck midnight – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) launched a controversial and ongoing series of raids on undocumented immigrant families from Central America.
After the Washington Post broke the news in late December, the operation has garnered plenty of heat in the national press, partly because of who it's primarily targeting: Young mothers with small children who fled gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras during a period in summer 2014 known as “the surge.” Approximately 15 thousand of these families were not granted asylum in the United States, however. As a result, they have deportation orders.
For nearly two weeks, then, ICE agents have been setting up roadblocks, showing up at people's homes, and overall stoking fear and anger among immigrant communities and advocates across the country, who argue that the targeted families didn't receive fair hearings and should not be sent back to countries where the violence they fled may, in fact, be getting worse. El Salvador has seen a 70 percent hike in its homicide rate in the past year alone, and many point to a new surge of Central American immigrants arriving at the U.S. border in late 2015 as an impetus for the raids.
The operation has raised the hackles of some national politicians (more than 140 members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama this week demanding that it be “immediately suspended”) as well as local ones (Washington representatives Suzan DelBene and Adam Smith have both issued public statements against the raids).
To Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE officials, though, all this is business as usual. “As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration; if you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values,” reads a January 4 press statement by DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson.
To date, ICE agents have targeted and detained at least 121 people in North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas. But as far as Washington-based immigrant rights groups know, no one has been targeted in our state – yet. “We've heard a lot of rumors, but we haven't heard any actual stories, of people being picked up in Washington,” says Juli Bildhauer, Co-Director of Legal Services at the Seattle office of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a nationwide network of pro-bono attorneys representing undocumented children in immigration cases.
“We expect that [this raid] may come to Washington state at some point; it doesn't appear to have happened yet,” adds OneAmerica executive director Rich Stolz.
Still, the operation has stirred up considerable anxiety among immigrant communities in Seattle. “It intensifies the fear that folks are already feeling,” says Cariño Barragan, an organizer with the Seattle-based advocacy group Casa Latina. In general, it's well-known that sometimes ICE agents “come out to look for a particular person of interest,” she says, “and end up taking other people not on that list.”
That's why Casa Latina and OneAmerica are co-hosting a “Know Your Rights” forum this Friday evening, January 15, at Casa Latina's headquarters in the Central District – a community discussion and legal training to be held in Spanish, with English translations, for community members, immigrants, and their allies. A representative from Rep. Suzan DelBene's office will be in attendance, as well as possibly as Rep. Adam Smith or one of his staffers. “We don't want to cause panic; we want people to be informed,” says Barragan. “It's always good to be aware of what to do in case anything were to happen.” For instance, if ICE agents arrive at someone's home with deportation orders in hand, but not search warrants, residents are not legally required to open their doors: Deportation orders are not warrants, and ICE agents are not local law enforcement.
While many local police across the country collaborate with ICE agents, a King County ordinance prohibiting the practice passed in December 2013. Both OneAmerica and Casa Latina were involved in a multi-year campaign to get that to happen. “We're happy that King County isn't collaborating with ICE directly, and that the police can't ask for immigration status just for a regular stop,” says Barragan. “That has helped folks feel a lot more comfortable and safe to have an interaction with police.”
Still, thanks to “such an increase of anti-immigrant rhetoric” recently (particularly among GOP presidential candidates), Barragan feels as though, in general, “some of those efforts are kind of diluted.”
The January raids might be something of a “a publicity stunt” according to Matt Adams, Legal Director for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. On the one hand, this is part of ICE's typical enforcement practices that occur year-round; on the other, these raids are a way for ICE to “send a message to Central Americans: We still deport Central Americans.” Regardless of where you stand on the issue, though, Adams doesn't believe this kind of tactic works. “It's a misjudged notion that [ICE's] actions could act as a disincentive. Those coming across the border from Central America have a much greater incentive, and that is fear for their lives.”
In many cases, he adds, they are also victims of inefficient or unjust bureaucracy. Some immigrants “are scheduled for a hearing they never knew about. Those who were deprived of an opportunity to go to [their hearing] because of messed up paperwork is more common than you would think.”
“Our position,” says OneAmerica executive director Rich Stolz, “is that the [Obama] administration has other options available to it that don't entail stopping people in cars and raiding people in their homes. To me, there are legitimate asylum claims that have never been heard.”
And while this particular series of raids may not be happening in Washington at the moment – for a variety of reasons, including that there isn't a particularly large population of immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras here – it doesn't mean that it won't. “They started with families in three specific areas,” says KIND president Wendi Young. “I don't think they're going to stop there.”