Obama’s Immigration Raids Are Turning Latino Communities Into Ghost Towns

Mercedes Rodriguez, Wheaton-area restaurant owner CREDIT: ESTHER YU HSI LEE
Mercedes Rodriguez, Wheaton-area restaurant owner CREDIT: ESTHER YU HSI LEE

WHEATON, MD — Around the Christmas holiday, the small businesses in downtown Wheaton — a Latino-heavy suburb about a half-hour north of Washington, D.C. — began to notice a big change.

There has been less foot traffic. It’s been easier to find parking. Despite the unseasonably warm start to the new year that drew many shoppers, there are fewer Latino families walking around outside. And now, nearly two weeks into 2016, the lack of shoppers during this afternoon hour has finally caught up with business owners’ bottom lines.

Mercedes Rodriguez has owned a popular Mexican-El Salvadoran restaurant in Wheaton for 18 years. Usually, close to 300 patrons come in on a daily basis — but now, she’s only seeing an average of 20 people a day.

Mario Perla, who owns a custom jewelry and watch repair shop, says his income has been cut by 50 or 60 percent since the beginning of this month.


“See, now it’s very quiet,” Perla told ThinkProgress, gesturing outside his shop at the empty sidewalk. “It’s hard to cover the rent and bills. It’s kind of scary.”

Nearby restaurants have seen similar dips, with one reporting just 40 total customers all week.

Fears of immigration raids have left sidewalks empty along Latino-owned businesses in downtown Wheaton, MD. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee
Fears of immigration raids have left sidewalks empty along Latino-owned businesses in downtown Wheaton, MD. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

This decline in business at these shops coincided with the Obama administration’s announcement that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents would begin immigration operations across the country to focus on deporting migrants who crossed the southern U.S. border after May 2014. The first large-scale immigration raid occurred last week, taking into custody 121 individuals, primarily families — including women and children — who came to the U.S. to flee gang violence and poverty in Central America.

Even though the raids have so far been concentrated in Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia, there has been a ripple effect across the country. Latino immigrants in other states — afraid of becoming the next individuals arrested in what they perceive to be random targetings — are resorting to hiding in their homes, keeping their children home from school, and calling on legal residents to do their grocery shopping for them.

“Customers were telling me that the rumor was, ‘Don’t come to Wheaton. ICE is in the neighborhood,’” Rodriguez told ThinkProgress through a Spanish-language interpreter. “People decided to go to food trucks that were away from the Wheaton area instead.”

Luis Bonilla, a U.S. citizen originally from El Salvador CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee
Luis Bonilla, a U.S. citizen originally from El Salvador CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

Rodriguez has assured customers that there aren’t any ICE agents around, but she also keeps bilingual “Know Your Rights” pamphlets near the restaurant menus for customers who are concerned about what they should do if ICE agents show up at their door. The pamphlets, provided by the immigrant advocacy group CASA de Maryland, advise immigrants to not open the door, remain silent, not to sign any documents, and to report the raid.


There’s good reason for advertising this type of advice. In other states, ICE agents are resorting to tactics like tricking people into opening their doors so they can enter without a judicial warrant and detain people. In some instances, ICE agents threatened arrest and told people that they needed to enter the premises based on the assumption that a “wanted” person might be hiding inside.

In another part of the Latino business district, Luis Bonilla, a U.S. citizen who came to the country from El Salvador in 1986, provides a multiservice location that offers tax preparation, accounting, bookkeeping, and an in-house attorney who provides full services but mainly focuses on immigration.

Now, scared customers call Bonilla before they leave their homes. “Since the beginning of the year, people will call and tell me that they’re not sure if they’ll stop by my business,” Bonilla told ThinkProgress. “Even though nothing has happened — when people see the police, they think of immigration and this is causing a lot of problems even to small kids who were born here. They’re worried about their parents.”

“I feel like this is terrorism against our people,” Bonilla added. “They feel so harassed — they’re so uncomfortable. I spoke with a client yesterday who said she hasn’t bought food because she’s so afraid to go out.”

I feel like this is terrorism against our people.

Guadalupe, a restaurant worker, is among the individuals who has the most to lose if ICE agents come to Wheaton. There’s a chance that her 16-year-old son — who left El Salvador to escape gang threats — could be deported. Although he has access to legal representation, she’s still concerned about what ICE agents could do before his next court hearing.


“I submitted the documents,” Guadalupe said, her voice breaking while her eyes occasionally darted towards the door. “Ever since the news came out [about the immigration raids], I’ve been very worried.”

In the meantime, she’s restricted the time they spend outside — limiting travel only between work to home. They asked someone who has legal status to help them do their grocery shopping.

“We try not to go out whenever possible,” she said. “We feel like we’re prisoners and that we’re not free to do what we want.”

At least for the moment, Guadalupe and other Latino immigrants in the area have the backing of their local officials in Montgomery County, who have condemned the nationwide raids.

“We in Montgomery County, especially our public safety officers, have worked extremely hard to build trust with our immigrant population,” Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett said in a press statement released this week. “To the members of our Montgomery County community who are justifiably concerned about the federal government’s most recent deportation actions, we encourage you to go about your daily activities free of fear.”

We feel like we’re prisoners.

Officials like Nestor Alvarenga, the Latin American Community Liaison in the Montgomery County Office of Community Partnerships, are trying to ease residents’ fear to maintain the partnerships that allow the county to maintain public safety.

“We in Montgomery County, we wanted to make the point that the policies aren’t changing,” Alvarenga, who grew up in Wheaton himself, told ThinkProgress. “There’s a lot of confusion that people are experiencing and that affects how we do public safety here.”

The pattern of anger, disappointment, and fear isn’t unique to Latino residents living in Wheaton. Across the country, other Latino-heavy communities have grown wary of raids — which the White House has said will continue despite the recent outcry.

“The community is very, very scared,” Raul Pinto, a staff attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center, told ThinkProgress.

You never know when it’s going to happen here.

Fred Tsao, the senior policy counsel for the llinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, told ThinkProgress that immigrant clients have canceled appointments at social service agencies because they’re afraid that ICE agents will show up.

Until the Obama administration stops raids, it appears that Latino immigrants will continue to err on the side of caution.

“You never know when it’s going to happen here,” Bonilla said. “That’s why people are taking measures to make sure they won’t be caught.”