WASHINGTON, D.C. — Over the past two weeks, at least three immigrant families in the Latino-heavy Washington neighborhood of Columbia Heights stated that they received disturbing, early-morning home visits from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
One 11-year-old child, a U.S. citizen, said she felt uncomfortable when an immigration agent reportedly asked if she had been inappropriately touched and made her 17-year-old brother take his shirt off to inquire about his tattoos. A grandmother with legal status said that agents submitted her and her family to photographs, fingerprint scans, and eye scans without their permission. Another individual recently told CARECEN that her family had received an early morning visit from immigration agents.
From these visits, the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), an immigration advocacy and resource center, reported that at least one legal immigrant was handcuffed before being released to go to work. Authorities reportedly refused to return his identification card. Another undocumented immigrant was taken and is now in an immigration detention center in Virginia.
CARECEN has since denounced the encounters as a “raid” because of the tactics used to gain entry into apartments that later resulted in the apprehension of suspected undocumented immigrants.
Unannounced home visits by immigration authorities are the stuff of nightmares for undocumented individuals whose fear of deportation is rooted in reality. Over the years, immigration crackdowns to root out suspected undocumented immigrants have happened with some frequency. It’s happened in the form of a costly procession of too many agents descending on a worksite, at homes across the country, restaurants, and flea markets among other locations.
In March, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) boasted that it had arrested more than 2,000 convicted criminal immigrants in a week-long nationwide raid. Advocates have since criticized the raid because they don’t believe it comports with President Barack Obama’s policy directives of prioritizing immigrants convicted of aggravated felonies and some misdemeanor crimes.
ThinkProgress spoke with two sets of Columbia Heights residents who received visits from immigration agents at their homes on an early morning in May. Both sets of residents described agents wearing blue uniforms with the word “POLICE” across their shirts and an arm badge that read, “Immigration and Customs Enforcement” (ICE). Residents also stated that agents identified themselves as “police” and carried a red folder containing photographs of criminal immigrants.
‘What’s going to happen the next time they see us alone?’
Eleven-year-old Juliana Amaya was sleeping in the living room when she woke up to “soft knocking” at her front door at 6 a.m. “Who is it?” Juliana asked, emphasizing to ThinkProgress that as a child, she wouldn’t open the door without asking first.
When Juliana opened her door, a man wearing a blue uniform asked why she, and not an adult, opened the door. Juliana responded that her mother was on the way home from the graveyard shift, her dad had just left for work, and that her 17-year-old brother was in his bedroom sleeping.
“Go get your brother,” an agent told her, propping open the door. Juliana said that she rushed to her brother’s bedroom to wake him. When agents saw him, one allegedly accused him of “smoking.” Juliana recounted that her brother was asked to take his shirt off to explain his tattoos, “they cut off his fingernails to take his fingerprints,” and “kept checking a red folder every time we answered a question.”
CREDIT: Esther Yu-Hsi Lee
Juliana said that she went to the kitchen to cry, but an agent followed her. “I’m scared [that] you’re going to separate me from my mom, my dad, or my family.” He “[took] ahold of me” and whispered, “has your dad or brother ever touched you?” Juliana said that she felt “uncomfortable” by the question and responded, “No, why would they touch me if they care about me and they’re my family? If they had touched me, I would have told my mom or someone.”
Agents questioned Juliana about a sister who had come across the border in 2007 and had been detained by immigration agents at the time. Juliana’s mother, Maria Gonzalez, explained that the daughter had an order of deportation, but that she didn’t live with them.
Agents left five minutes before Gonzalez walked back from her job to her two startled, crying children.
“I can’t trust police anymore,” Juliana said, reflecting on how she’s fared since the raid. “They even said that we’re under 18. They couldn’t make my brother take off his shirt; they didn’t have the right to do that. If there’s not an adult with me, they can’t just say that they’re going to take him out. I can’t trust immigration [because] I’m scared [that] my mom and my dad don’t have papers. I’m scared that it’ll be a problem if I’m left alone.”
“Sometimes I have nightmares, but every time I tell my mom that I’m scared they’re going to come again. Can Dad stay a little later? But my mom says that he can’t because he needs to go to work. We have to have a roof over our top [sic] and I’m like, ‘okay, every time I go to sleep, they’re going to come.’ What’s going to happen the next time they see us alone? Do I open the door? What do I do? I’m just scared.”
‘He took me by the hand and took my fingerprints on a little machine.’
CREDIT: Esther Yu-Hsi Lee
When immigration agents knocked and announced themselves as “police” on the other side of the door, Maria Isabel Guevara thought it was “really strange for the police to come to our house” at such an early time of day. She recounted, “I figured we didn’t do anything wrong. … I let them in because they kept saying that they needed to talk to us.”
Agents asked to speak with all members present so with the exception of the two small children under the age of two still sleeping, Guevara woke up six other family members, who came out to the living room. Two agents speaking in Spanish asked for identification from all seven residents.
“He took me by the hand and took my fingerprints on a little machine — it’s like a telephone, but bigger and then the Hispanic took a camera and put it to my face to take pictures,” Guevara said. She explained that with the exception of her son-in-law who’s undocumented, everyone else has Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a temporary immigration status that allows beneficiaries to obtain legal work authorization but does not grant permanent resident status (green card). “They didn’t get our permission. We were all afraid and scared because they said they came to talk to us, but they came to do something else instead.”
“My son asked, ‘why are you doing this? Are you immigration or the police?'” Guevara said. “They said, ‘we’re both.'”
After agents finished the fingerprinting and eye scanning process, they pulled out a red folder and asked everyone if they knew the person in the photo. One agent joked with Guevara if she needed glasses to see better, “but I really didn’t know the person.” An agent followed Guevara’s daughter to a bedroom where her husband was sleeping. When he was woken up, Guevara said that agents handcuffed him and later took him to a detention center in Virginia.
“Because my son-in-law didn’t have a warrant for him, wasn’t convicted, and didn’t have an order of deportation, I don’t know why they came,” Guevara said.
“My daughter is very sad and depressed,” Guevara added. “[My son-in-law] has two small children that still don’t know what’s going on,” Guevara said, before cooing over her three grandchildren between the ages of 11 months (“he’s not walking yet”) and 13-years-old Brandon (“he’s very quiet and doesn’t react”).
“I’m really afraid now,” Guevara said. “We trust the authorities because if something bad happens, they’re who we turn to. But if we lose that, then we’re lost. They really have to tell the truth, stating that ‘we’re here looking for two individuals’ and not lie to us and hide these things. They should tell the truth.”
The D.C. Council approved a bill in 2012 to restrict the city police department from holding suspected undocumented immigrants in local law enforcement custody before transferring them over to federal immigration officials for possible deportation proceedings.
Confusing municipal police with immigration enforcement could seriously impact community safety. Abel Nunez, CARECEN’s Executive Director, indicated that immigration agents wearing shirts that read “police” erodes the trust that the Latino community place in the municipal police. “If our community members begin to equate municipal police with immigration officials, they would be more hesitant to talk to the police, to open doors for issues that aren’t related to immigration, but are just about public safety issues.”
Nunez said, “When there is confusion about which agency is coming to your door, it does in the long run, impact the community’s safety. For us, that’s a concern because what we have to tell our community is not to open their doors to the police unless they have a warrant. Unless they can show proof that they have the authority to enter given to them given by a judicial branch of government.”
“When this raid happened, we as an institution, are not questioning [ICE’s] right to enforce immigration policy,” Nunez said. “We may disagree on what that policy is, but we’re challenging how [immigration agents] gained entrance. According to the testimonies, we heard they gained entrance because [residents] heard the word, ‘police’ and in terms of the treatment, we’re concerned about it. Photographs and fingerprints were taken and if that’s the protocol, we need to know that. We’re concerned with how they operated once they were in the building. If they were looking for specific individuals, there was no need for that kind of treatment for folks.”
Nunez explained, “It goes back to the level of mistrust that this has in our community. It also breaks down the level of trust that the D.C. police built up with the Latino community. This happened to documented individuals. The people, who were undocumented, like that young man, was taken away. But everyone else had some sort of status, like TPS, that allows them to be legally in this country so they should be treated with the respect that they deserve.”