ICE raids in Texas strike fear into immigrants, regardless of legal status

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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), agents detain an immigrant in 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

By Asher Elbein in Austin, Texas

Eren Uribe and her sister had an unsettling encounter on Friday morning: They were driving in Austin, Texas when an unmarked car began tailing them. Their discomfort only grew when they caught a glimpse of the man driving at a stoplight, and they could see that he was wearing a vest identifying him as an agent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Uribe and her sister pulled out their phones and began filming; the ICE agent sped away as soon as he saw them pointing their cameras at him.

The Uribe sisters weren’t alone in their concerns. Fear and anger rolled through the streets of Texas’ capitol this weekend after a nationwide crackdown on undocumented immigrants left 53 residents detained. The raids — part of a nationwide surge – sparked protests and  denunciations from elected officials and organizing by immigrant rights advocates, and triggered wide uncertainty in the area’s undocumented community.

Uribe was at one such protest, organized by Youth Rise Texas, on Friday — her first ever, she said — at the JJ Pickle Federal Building, where detainees were said to be held. While Uribe is currently protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an Obama-era policy that grants certain undocumented immigrants brought to this country as minors deferred action on deportation and eligibility for a work permit, she’s afraid for her family’s safety.

“My mother is not documented,” Uribe said. “She’s afraid to come outside. She’s afraid to drive. If she gets pulled over for any reason, she might be taken away. Everything we have, we have it here.”

As demonstrators held up signs to the passing traffic, an Austin Police Department squad car and pair of police officers on bicycles suddenly stopped rush hour traffic on the busy thoroughfare alongside the building. Men wearing POLICE ICE vests emerged from the building, forming a barricade between the protestors and the driveway into the federal building, just as four white vans shot out, accompanied by two squad cars.

Activists suspected that the vans contained detainees who’d been processed earlier in the day – but the vehicles were gone too fast for them to be sure.

Minutes after the vans pulled away, two women ran up to the building in tears. One of them, Seren Arriles, spoke no English, so Uribe translated. According to Arriles, ICE had arrived at the bodyshop at which her brother-in-law worked that morning, and he’d called and asked her to bring his birth certificate over, thinking that there’d been some mistake. But by the time she arrived, he was gone and only a pair of ICE agents remained to inform her that he’d been detained. In response to her questions, she said, the ICE agents only told her to “learn English.”

She had come downtown to try and see her brother-in-law before he was moved, presumably to an immigration detention center to await deportation, but she arrived too late, and had no idea where or how to find him.

Dave Cortez, an organizer with the Austin chapter of the nonprofit environmental organization Sierra Club, shook his head as he listened to Arriles. He’d been getting text messages from teachers in his neighborhood, the Austin suburb of Del Valle, which warned of kids not showing up for school, and of children left at school, confused and frightened that their parents never came to pick them up.

“Right now people are just terrified,” Cortez said. “People are missing sleep, they’re not going to work, they’re not going to school. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Rumors of a coming enforcement surge had circulated for days before the arrests, activists and elected officials said. On Thursday, the rumors became warnings, as stories of arrests began spreading on social media, including of people waylaid on the roads, photos of ICE agents loitering near elementary schools, and reports of a scuffle between an undocumented man and an ICE agent in North Austin.

The agency initially claimed that the arrests were part of routine enforcement. On Friday, ICE appeared to walk that position back, confirming on a conference call that Austin and several other cities — including Los Angeles and Atlanta — were part of an “enforcement surge.” U.S. immigration officials said that hundreds had been arrested following actions in at least six states.

At a press conference on Friday, City Councilman Greg Casar, whose district is heavily Hispanic and has a hefty chunk of undocumented residents, denounced the raids as “retaliatory actions,” by a federal and state government angered by Austin designating itself a sanctuary city. During the press conference, Casar and other City Council Members promised an an emergency appropriation of funds from the city for nonprofit legal groups to provide deportation defense for undocumented immigrants.

“I think community members across Austin and all over the country have been standing up for our immigrant families,” Casar said. “I think that the administration wants to strike fear into communities, wants to silence communities, wants immigrant communities to duck and cover rather than assert their rights.”

Then on Saturday, Representative Juan Castro confirmed to the Austin American Statesman that immigration raids were occurring throughout Texas, and the Mexican Consulate in Austin told NPR that at least 49 Mexican nationals had been detained over a 48-hour period, a drastic increase from prior enforcement levels, which saw 3 or 4 people detained a day.

According to an email distributed by the American Immigration Lawyers Association and received by criminal defense attorney George Lobb, ICE has reinstituted “Operation Cross-Check,” which ostensibly targets only undocumented people with criminal convictions. However, after Trump’s wide-ranging executive order identifying deportation priorities agents are also picking up any undocumented bystanders identified over the course of an investigation into “criminal aliens.” Calls to the ICE field office in San Antonio were not returned as of press time, but ICE tweeted on Monday that 28 foreign nationals (16 with criminal records) were arrested in the San Antonio area on Thursday and Friday and, in a linked statement, cautioned that “Reports of ICE checkpoints and sweeps are false, dangerous and irresponsible” but noted that other undocumented immigrants encountered during enforcement actions could be arrested at the discretion of its agents.

“The crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise,” Trump tweeted on Sunday morning. “Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!”

Austin’s status as an immigrant-protecting “sanctuary city” has also led to a mounting tensions with the state government: The state legislature is already debating a bill that would remove pro-sanctuary council members from city governments like Austin’s. Governor Greg Abbott has been a vocal critic of the sanctuary policy, and has threatened to have Austin Sheriff Sally Hernandez removed for following it — something the governor does not presently have the authority to do.

Under “sanctuary city” ordinances, police and social services simply don’t actively cooperate with ICE. But that doesn’t mean that ICE isn’t present and active.

“As a federal agency, ICE has jurisdiction and doesn’t have to tell us when they are conducting operations in Austin,” Austin Police Department (APD) Interim Chief Brian Manley said in a press conference on Friday. “I’ve not been made aware that anything is different.” APD claimed they were not assisting ICE operations.

The raids have undocumented immigrants living in and around Austin keeping a much lower profile. The parking lot of the H-E-B grocery store on North Lamar Boulevard, which is heavily patronized by those in the undocumented immigrant community, was virtually empty on Friday afternoon, and several protesters at the Pickle Federal Building mentioned that the usual gathering spots for members of Austin’s large immigrant community — taco stands, Latino grocery stores, park — are still and silent.

Spontaneous demonstrations rolled through the city over the weekend, with groups organizing on social media to pass out “know your rights” fliers, and with quick rallies happening throughout the predominantly Hispanic east, southeast and northwest. According to the Austin American Statesman, teachers in the Austin Independent School District are providing information to their students about what to do should ICE come knocking.

According to a statement made by Representative Castro to KVUE on Saturday, ICE is refusing to release more information until the operation is completed — and it may continue for several more days. For now, the undocumented community braces for more rounds of arrests and deportations.

“It isn’t fair that all of a sudden they try and kick us all out with no reason,” Uribe said. “I understand if people have legal issues, like arrest warrants, or federal issues, but there are a lot of people that are unjustly being taken. We just want to feel safe. We don’t want to feel afraid and hopeless.”