An undocumented immigrant was reportedly lured out of a church with fake text messages before being apprehended by federal agents last month, an unsettling incident that is raising questions about the often manipulative tactics used by immigration officials.
“This incident can only undermine local efforts to build trust between law enforcement and immigrant communities, and make immigrants concerned about going not only to church but also schools, hospitals, and other public places where they might now fear arrest,” Fred Tsao, Senior Policy Counsel at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, told ThinkProgress.
According to Chicago radio station WBEZ, Reynold Garcia, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, entered the Christian Pentecostal Center in Schaumburg, Illinois one morning in early January. He and several others had gathered at the house of worship to pray for comfort, as agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had raided Garcia’s house the day before while he was away, taking his wife and two children with them.
“He told us, ‘you know, if something happens to me, we’ll keep in touch by cells,’” said Haggar Gutierrez, Garcia’s friend and one of several parishioners of the largely Hispanic congregation who were present that morning.
But as the congregants assembled, Garcia’s phone began receiving chilling text messages that appeared to be from his cousin, Noel. The texts said he had been involved in a car accident, and that he needed Garcia’s help.
Garcia, 31, reportedly told other worshippers he felt “something was not right” about the texts, but received a phone call from an officer confirming the accident and saying they would come to the church and escort him to the police station. As Garcia exited the church, he was waved over to a nearby McDonald's parking lot by people who appeared to be local police. Other congregants asked if they could go with him, but men wearing vests with “Police” scrawled across the chest told them to stay at the church.
But as the Garcia entered their unmarked cars, witnesses say they realized the men were not local police, but ICE agents: Garcia was being apprehended.
“The very last moment, you know, is when we realized what was happening,” Gutierrez told WBEZ. “I go, ‘No, no no… this is not police. This is ICE.’ But it was too late, because he was already inside the car.”
Indeed, reports indicate that the texts were not from Garcia’s cousin, but from ICE officials who had procured Noel’s phone. Even the car accident was a deception: the entire incident had been fabricated by agents to coax Garcia out of the church.
The following morning, Garcia — who has been deported once before — was already in a Texas detention center, along with his wife and children.
The incident rocked members of the tiny church community, who are now raising money to send care packages to Garcia and his family in Mexico. The congregation is also holding seminars to make sure worshippers of the predominantly hispanic congregation are aware of their rights.
“We’re letting members know that if anyone is calling you or asking you to leave the church, that you need to notify somebody,” Gerson Moreno, the church’s associate pastor, told the Chicago radio station.
Garcia’s detention is sparking outrage within the immigrant community, many of whom are appalled by ICE’s deceptive tactics as well as their willingness to conduct activities so close to a church. They note that the fact that agents lured Garcia to the parking lot is telling: ICE has a longstanding internal policy of never raiding “sensitive” locations such as churches, hospitals, or schools, a stance Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson reaffirmed earlier this month, saying in a statement, "when enforcing the immigration laws, our personnel will not, except in emergency circumstances, apprehend an individual at a place of worship, a school, a hospital or doctor’s office or other sensitive location."
“So much of this operation is troubling: the commandeering of the cell phone, the fake accident, the ICE agents posing as local police, the arrest near the church — all to deport one person and break up a family,” Tsao said. “ICE already has a policy discouraging operations in such ‘sensitive’ locations to prevent just such a chilling effect. ICE needs to follow this policy more strictly, and hold accountable those who violate it.”
Others have noted that the ICE’s misleading tactics seemed largely unnecessary.
“While ICE technically complied with the law, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that without articulating an emergency, they lured an unsuspecting illegal immigrant from a place of worship on false pretenses, effectively denying him access to spiritual services,” Nick Levine, a lawyer with the Oliveira Law Group, told ThinkProgress. “We have no evidence before us that ICE could not have waited until after the service, thereby maintaining the status of Churches, Hospitals, and Schools as sanctuaries. It is unclear why these same tactics could not have been used outside of sensitive areas.”
ICE’s resistance to raiding such locations has been tested in recent months, as several churches are now housing undocumented immigrants within their church walls to protect them from the threat of deportation. The faith-based campaign, which activists call the New Sanctuary Movement, has seen a resurgence in recent months, as faith communities rush to protect immigrants fleeing violence in Central America but who are subject to a new surge of raids by the federal government.
“As if ICE didn’t already have too much power which they use erratically and immorally, now they are adding psychological warfare to their arsenal,” said Rev. Donna Schaper, pastor of Judson Memorial Church, which participates in the New Sanctuary Movement. “Of course this is a callous violation of that now broken promise [to not encroach on sensitive locations]. Immigrants are used to broken promises.”
Soon after the Obama administration authorized a large-scale immigration raid primarily targeting 121 Central American mothers and children in Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina, many Latino immigrants went into hiding while rumors swirled of potential ICE agents in their neighborhoods. Some Latino communities that weren’t even affected by the raids experienced a sharp drop in business regardless. Attendance at a high school where 70 percent of the students are Latino in Maryland’s Prince George’s County dropped sharply because of a fear of further deportation raids. In response, Dr. Kevin Maxwell, CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools, wrote an open letter to DHS asking for officials to “to see schools and other public gathering places as areas where no enforcement activities should take place and ask them to strongly consider the devastating impacts of their actions on the academic, social and emotional well-being of all of our students.”