Agents first rang the doorbell at Rene’s house at 4:30 a.m. No one opened the door.
They pounded on the door. Again, no one stirred.
Then they flashed lights into every available window. Everyone held their breath. Finally, at 7 a.m., the agents left.
But when Rene — who requested for his last name to be withheld — eventually left the house to get breakfast items, two agents intercepted him in his car as he was driving back home. They said they were looking for a wanted man, and needed to take a look in Rene’s house to see if anyone there matched their photo.
Rene initially refused, saying no one living in his home fit that description. But the agents insisted. “Are you aware that any non-collaboration with the police department could lead to your arrest?” the men told him, as Rene recounted to ThinkProgress through a translator.
CREDIT: Family photo
“They got inside before I did,” he said. “They barged in. No one [in the house] was scared because we all have some sort of work permit or lawful status in the country. When agents went in, they asked everyone to take out their identification cards. That’s when they arrested my sister Rosa and two of her children.”
Only at that point did the agents identify themselves as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. According to Rene, the men said that they had an order from the immigration judge, “but that they didn’t have it with them.” They took Rosa, along with her 17-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.
Rosa and her children were among the 121 immigrants who were taken into custody during the weekend operation, after the Obama administration authorized large-scale deportation raids to repatriate people who recently crossed the southern border.
For Rosa and her kids, that means being sent back to Guatemala, the country they escaped in June 2014 after gangs threatened to kidnap one of Rosa’s children. According to Rene, gangs have been following them ever since Rosa witnessed a murder taking place on her property, and Rosa didn’t feel safe. So she decided to make the journey to Texas.
“If she’s sent back to Guatemala — if those criminals know that she’s in the country again — they won’t cease to try and find her,” Rene said.
At least for now, Rosa is being detained at the South Texas Detention Center in Dilley, Texas. She’s been able to get in touch with Rene twice. She’s wept both times, asking him to “please take care of my daughter.” Rosa’s 19-year-old daughter — who wasn’t taken in the raid, for reasons the ICE agents didn’t explain to the family — is now in hiding, perpetually afraid that the agents will come back to pick her up.
Around the country, immigrant advocacy groups and faith leaders are preparing to assist the immigrants concerned about law enforcement activity in the midst of the current raids. One of the main priorities is educating the immigrant communities about the deceptive tactics that ICE agents may use to gain entry to their homes — and what exactly their rights are in these situations.
In Chicago, advocacy groups are going door-to-door in Latino-heavy neighborhoods, knocking on doors and distributing information about a local and national hotline numbers to call. United We Dream (UWD), an immigrant advocacy group, has set up a hotline for people to report ICE raids. And Central American embassies and and consultates, like the Guatemalan ministry of external relations, have begun warning people that immigration agents who show up at people’s houses must show them an order signed by a judge.
“It’s an all hands-on moment right now,” Marielena Hincapié, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said on a conference call on Wednesday. “I believe that this is going to be one of the moments in history that will be seen as a dark blemish on this administration, the way they have treated unaccompanied children coming from Central America, mothers and children fleeing gender violence in particular.”
On Tuesday, the Board of Immigration Appeals — the nation’s highest immigration court — granted an emergency stay for four sets of Central American families apprehended by ICE officials over the weekend with the help of the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project.
“Our interviews revealed that these families have bona fide asylum claims, but were deprived of a meaningful opportunity to present them at their hearings in immigration court,” Katie Shepherd, managing attorney for the CARA Project, said in a press statement. “It’s beyond shameful that these families, who risked everything to seek protection in the United States, were being forcibly returned to the violence and turmoil they fled in Central America.”
In faith communities, religious leaders are deciding whether to allow some immigrants to take sanctuary in places of worship to avoid being scooped up in raids and deported back to countries where their lives may be placed in danger.
“These raids were done to create chaos in our community,” Rev. Alison Harrington, the pastor at the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, AZ, said on the same conference call. Her church has a long history of taking in immigrants with deportation orders through the so-called “Sanctuary Movement,” which operates under the unspoken rule that ICE agents won’t take immigrants into custody in sensitive locations like houses of worship.
“We’re still trying to connect people and churches. We are on the cusp of a few folks entering sanctuary,” Harrington said.
According to Rev. Noel Andersen, a grassroots coordinator with Church World Service, many of the same churches that started participating in the Sanctuary Movement in 2014 — after the first wave of unaccompanied minors crossed the southern border — are interested in offering sanctuary for immigrants again.
“We’re approaching 50 congregations that are actually ready to bring people in, in a growing network of hundreds of congregations that are supporting that effort,” Andersen said.
The Obama administration’s push to rapidly deport immigrants in the first few months of the new year has also riled up Democratic leaders, like Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who condemn the raids.
“Raids will not bring us order,” Gutierrez said. “Raids will only bring misery.”
That rings true for Rene, who says his family’s recent experience with ICE agents has eroded his trust in law enforcement authorities altogether.
“I’m disappointed that they straight up lied and used deceitful tactics to try to get information,” Rene said. “Why do they have to lie to try and get information? Usually Latinos will try to do anything to cooperate with the agencies, but I’m just baffled by all of this.”