As authorities track Central American families who have been issued removal orders, immigrant communities nationwide are urged to be informed and know their rights.
“Urgent!” states one message in Spanish on Twitter. “Reports indicate that there will be raids during January! Don’t be scared and report immigration authorities if you see them.”
The heightened alert comes as 121 people were taken into custody last weekend, primarily in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina, as part of a nationwide enforcement operation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. They are being processed and will be placed on return flights to their home countries, according to Homeland Security.
Late Tuesday, however, the Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington delayed the deportation of four families who were among those rounded up last weekend. The decision is a small yet potentially significant breakthrough for lawyers fighting the raids.
“If there was no case, nothing here, we wouldn’t have gotten the stay,” said one of the lawyers, Laura Lichter, general counsel for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The Obama administration operation focused on Central American adults and their children who were apprehended last spring after crossing the southern border illegally, had been issued orders of removal by an immigration court and, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said, “have exhausted appropriate legal remedies.”
Our borders are not open to illegal migration; if you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson
Those in the North Texas immigrant community are concerned about future raids.
“In North Texas, there are a lot of folks who are afraid that ICE might show up at their house and deport them,” said Douglas Interiano, director and founder of Proyecto Inmigrante ICS, Inc., a immigration counseling service with offices in Fort Worth, Dallas and Wichita Falls.
The focus is on people from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who arrived at the border at the same time as record numbers of unaccompanied minor children in 2014. Many said they were fleeing violence in their homelands.
Immigration advocates worry that another category of immigrants — those who are awaiting temporary legal status promised by Obama’s 2014 executive order — will also be apprehended in future raids.
‘This just barely started’
The raids took place during the New Year’s Day weekend.
Johnson said enforcement operations could continue if deemed appropriate. Local ICE authorities did not release any area-specific information about the raids.
The government’s actions were supported by NumbersUSA, a Washington, D.C.-based immigration-reduction organization.
“America is a nation of laws, but those laws are meaningless unless they are enforced,” said Roy Beck, founder and president of the organization said in a statement. “Even the Obama Administration recognizes that the only way to deter additional illegal migration by Central American family units and minors is to return those who come to their home countries.”
But activists worry immigrants will grow so fearful that they will stop their daily routines.
“I’ve seen, in worse cases, that children stop going to school because parents are scared,” said Ramiro Luna, who is with the North Texas Young Latino Leaders.
Any time a raid occurs, it sends shockwaves of fear throughout the whole immigrant community. Even though they ‘target’ certain individuals, they terrorize whole communities.
Jose Manuel Santoyo, a student at SMU and a human rights activist
At Proyecto Inmigrante, telephone calls are on the increase from immigrants who want to know what to do if ICE officers show up, Interiano said.
“This just barley started,” Interiano said, who expects calls to intensify if raids move into Tarrant County. “We have dozens of phone calls. People are afraid.”
‘Know your rights’
A campaign to educate immigrants is taking place on social media. Advocacy groups and consulate offices from Guatemala and El Salvador have offered tips and phone numbers to call if ICE officers show up. Many are urged not to sign voluntary deportation papers and to ask for their attorneys.
“It's important for the undocumented community to know that they have rights, just like every other individual living in this nation,” said Jose Manuel Santoyo, an SMU student and human rights activist. “For that reason, immigrant rights organizations ramp up the ‘know-your-right’s campaigns — to raise awareness in these tragic situations.”
That “know-your-rights” theme is reflected in hashtags such as #Not1More, #WatchICE, which are shared by people denouncing the raids, and Spanish-language materials.
235,413 individuals removed or returned by ICE in fiscal year 2015
Advocates worry that some Central Americans targeted were deported “in absentia” because they didn’t understand they needed to show up in an immigration court, Interiano said.
Additionally, the raids have prompted an outcry from faith leaders nationwide. During a press call Wednesday, religious leaders discussed an emerging sanctuary movement. At least three Methodist churches in California have already created safe havens, said Minerva G. Carcano, who is the area bishop for The United Methodist Church in Los Angeles.
Rev. Alison Harrington, pastor at the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz., said hundreds of churches across the country are poised to participate in an “underground railroad” similar to those that aided refugees from Central America in the 1980s.
“Human lives are on the line,” Harrington said.
‘Why target these people?’
Many immigration advocates worry that immigrants waiting for a temporary remedy through Obama’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program, will end up being picked up in any future raids.
DAPA would protect about 4.1 million unauthorized immigrants nationwide. It would allow them to apply for work permits, provided they were parents of U.S.-born children or legal permanent residents, passed a background check and paid fees. But that program has been stalled by a federal lawsuit pending in the courts.
Why target these people?
Father Stephen Jasso, All Saints Catholic Church in Fort Worth
Father Stephen Jasso leads a Catholic congregation at All Saints Catholic Church in north Fort Worth. His congregants are mostly immigrants, he said, and many have expressed fear of the raids.
Many immigrant families include parents who don’t have legal status, but who have U.S. born children and have been living here for decades, he said.
“They are trying to work,” Jasso said. “They are attending church and they are working.”
Jasso said many are laboring in jobs many Americans don’t want to do. Some in the community don’t plan to say here forever, Jasso said, explaining that they save dollars so they return to their homelands to invest in ambitions there.
“Why target these people?” Jasso said.
McClatchy staff writer Franco Ordonez in Washington contributed to this report, which contains information from Star-Telegram archives.