Originally published on Al Jazeera on February 15, 2017
Los Angeles, United States – It usually begins with a startling knock at the door before dawn.
Most people in Los Angeles are asleep at around 4 or 5am. But in the undocumented community, many are already awake, preparing for longer-than-average workdays, making breakfast for their children.
This is also typically when immigration authorities arrive on doorsteps – often in predominantly Latino neighbourhoods, activists and undocumented people familiar with raids say.
“Police,” the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers sometimes announce themselves as from behind the door, according to testimony from undocumented people interviewed by Al Jazeera.
Immigrant rights advocates – and also the Mexican government, which tells Al Jazeera it is redoubling efforts to support its people – say they’re rushing to inform people that this part can be misleading: ICE officers are not the kind of local law enforcement charged with “protecting and serving” local communities; they are federal agents who deport people. They do occasionally work together with, but are not to be confused with, local police forces.
The activists and undocumented people who spoke to Al Jazeera say that sometimes undocumented people on the other side of the door assume there’s a burglar or rapist in the neighbourhood, or perhaps a fire – and that the police are there to protect them, not to ship them back to their country of origin.
So, they open the door. And legally, that’s when the agents are allowed to enter, apprehend the suspected undocumented person, potentially have them make declarations revoking their residency and eventually repatriate them to their country of origin.
A series of raids in a number of cities in at least six states across the country were launched late last week. More than 600 undocumented people were held. Of that number, ICE has told local media that 160 were from the Los Angeles area.
Never before, many say, has there been a nationwide sweep like the one conducted under the auspices of the newly inaugurated administration of US President Donald Trump. Even under former President Barack Obama, dubbed “deporter-in-chief” by many in this community for a record 2.5 million deportations of undocumented US residents, there had never been a nationwide campaign like this, they explain.
The raids mark the latest in a series of policy shifts targeting Mexican Americans, analysts say. In June 2015, Trump launched his campaign with a pledge to bar undocumented immigrants. “When Mexico sends it people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
‘Nowhere to run’
Last month, Trump signed an executive order calling for the construction of a bigger, more impenetrable border wall across the US border with Mexico. He plans to deport as many as 8 million undocumented Americans, according to a Los Angeles Times newspaper report, citing calculations of presidential directives.
These bellicose developments – dismissed before as unconstitutional and highly improbable – are beginning to affect the everyday lives of Mexicans and other communities of Americans living without papers in Los Angeles and across the country.
Activists complain about a lack of transparency in ICE’s proceedings – many are confused about whether the coordinated sweep across the country is a sign of more to come.
ICE did not respond to a series of questions on its practices at time of publication.
The only indication of what these raids look like comes from a composite of what undocumented community members describe as their and their neighbours’ interactions with ICE. Al Jazeera spoke to a series of undocumented people and their advocates to better understand what it means to be swept up in a raid.
When ICE comes knocking, agents rarely break down the door unless the undocumented person behind it is considered armed and dangerous, activists say.
Many undocumented people do not know that they don’t need – by law – to open the door at all.
“I know of cases of people who happened to answer the door when ICE showed up to their house. They describe it as the most horrifying moment of their life. Nowhere to run to, no one to scream to for help,” said an undocumented young woman, who asked to remain anonymous. For the purposes of this article, she will be called Jenny.
“The raids target large neighbourhoods, particularly neighbourhoods with large amounts of Latinos,” Jenny said. “We see people answering the door and although [ICE agents] are not there for that person, they end up taking them also.”
And where ICE once only targeted undocumented people who had been convicted of criminal activity, now they are detaining those without criminal records, Jenny and a number of activists who deal with undocumented peoples’ legal cases told Al Jazeera.
Before the knock
What comes before that unannounced visit from ICE is described by community advocates as chronic, all-consuming fear among undocumented people.
As a young undocumented American who usually campaigns for her community, Jenny said that this is “the first time in her life” that she has asked to remain anonymous.
“It’s just been a roller-coaster with the Trump administration,” she said.
Jenny came to the US when she was one year old, and is now a college student holding down two jobs and campainging for other undocumented Americans. She spoke to Al Jazeera via telephone, late in the evening, on a break from one of her jobs.
Undocumented Americans contribute $11.6bn to the US economy in taxes annually, according to a February 2016 study by US think-tank the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.
Unlike raids under Obama, Jenny feels raids under Trump “carry an overwhelming sense of hatred with them. That’s the only difference.”
Since the raids began, her precarious immigration status has begun to creep into her dreams. “I actually had a nightmare two days ago. I was caught in a raid at a public mall and ICE took me. I can vividly describe what I felt in my dream: I was crushed, destroyed, panicked, begging the officer to let me go, telling him I’m a good person with no record, and how great of a student I am. I woke up in tears. I can only imagine how much worse the feeling is in real life,” she said.
Jenny’s fear is not hers alone – in less than a week since the raids, it has become a social phenomenon in cities with large undocumented populations like Los Angeles.
“What concerns us is that it is happening in multiple locations at the same time. It looks like something coordinated to create fear in the community,” said Anabella Bastida, director of the Council of Mexican Federations, known by the Spanish-language acronym COFEM, an organisation that campaigns for the political, economic and social empowerment of Mexican and other Latino American communities.
“The community is being terrorised – they think everyone is being deported,” Bastida added.
Bastida spoke to Al Jazeera at her office beside Olvera Street – a cluster of Mexican cultural and tourist attractions. Los Angeles, Olvera serves to remind people, used to be part of Mexico, before the Mexican-American War began in 1846. The Mexican culture – its food, music and people – are not just ubiquitous in California and much of the southern US, they are endemic.
Many of the visitors and callers to Bastida’s office are asking frantic questions about what the raids mean for individual lives and families.
“People don’t even want to go out any more. Even permanent residents are cancelling trips to Mexico, because they are afraid even if they have a green card,” Bastida’s sister and COFEM development associate, Maria Bastida, said.
An undocumented woman told Al Jazeera, in a statement obtained anonymously by COFEM, that she was “without hope”, following the raids – that she fears returning to Mexico, a country she is no longer accustomed to.
“As a mother of three, I think I am a good citizen, I contribute to this country. I went to school here and graduated from the university because I wanted to succeed and not be on public assistance or anything like that,” she said. As with Jenny, Al Jazeera chose to withhold her identity to ensure that her participation in this report does not affect her US residence status.
Once detained …
If the undocumented person opens their door, that is where the trouble starts, explained Francisco Moreno, COFEM community director, who works with people affected by raids.
“Imagine children crying, screaming. If the person opens the door, they can register everyone that’s inside – even non-criminals,” he said.
There is typically a Spanish-speaker – the agents are mostly “whites and Latinos”, Moreno said, adding that he has received reports that some undocumented immigrants are unsure what agents are trying to say in Spanish.
From there, detainees are removed from their homes in handcuffs, taken to a vehicle outside, and asked questions, Moreno explained.
“They ask who you are. ‘Are you undocumented?’ We are trying to tell people not to say anything,” Moreno said.
COFEM – like the American Civil Liberties Union and other immigrant rights groups – is advising community members to remain silent and request legal representation.
“They take them to the ICE station, they are booked, they take fingerprints. They cross-check fingerprints with the FBI and others – then the person is detained,” Moreno said.
At the detention centres, the detainee and their families on the outside await an uncertain fate.
Alexandra Suh, director of community advocacy group the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA), an organisation that advocates for Koreatown residents who are of both Latin and Asian American origin, described a trip to one such detention centre.
“One of the most difficult parts is, of course, being deported – but when you are in detention, you don’t know how long you’re going to be in detention. I remember visiting a Korean woman in a detention centre. It was freezing cold. She didn’t have enough clothing to keep warm and had no idea how long that would last. She wasn’t able to take care of her family here. It’s just dealing with that uncertainty. Dealing with the difficulty of being apart from your loved ones,” Suh said.
About 20 percent of the Korean American community is undocumented, Suh said. “But no one confides it [to other Korean American community members], so everyone is living in this silent fear.”
“Loved ones on the outside also suffer,” Suh added.
Another KIWA case, months before Trump’s inauguration, involved a Guatemalan woman. “She had diabetes and her family members did not know how long she was being detained. They didn’t know about her physical condition or if she had access to medication.”
In detention, ICE “asks people if they want to voluntarily return when they are not criminals. They ask immediately if they want to return to their country of origin,” Moreno said.
If they sign documentation, they are taken to a separate centre to be prepared for deportation and eventually put on an unmarked ICE plane back to the regional hub closest to their city of origin, Moreno explained.
“It depends on where the immigrant is from. Talking about Mexico, if you are from the southern part of Mexico, they send you by plane to Mexico City and leave you there. If you are from the north, they deport you through any of the nine gates – Tijuana is one, there’s Nogales.”
Struggling to cope
Mexico, a main destination for deportees, is struggling to answer the question of what happens to people after they have been deported.
In recent weeks, the country has established a programme called Somos Mexicanos – We are Mexicans – designed to inform freshly deported or otherwise returned citizens from the US of programmes available to reintegrate them into society. It informs returnees to Mexico of a series of benefits – recuperation of belongings left behind in the US, food and healthcare. It also directs the recipient to employment and educational services.
“We want to inform them about the resources available to every Mexican national that goes back to Mexico, whether as a result of the deportation or if they voluntarily decide to return,” Felipe Carrera Aguayo, Consul for Protection at the Consulate General of Mexico in Los Angeles, told Al Jazeera.
The consulate is offering legal aid to Americans of Mexican origin, as well as encouraging people to apply for US residency. “We have been aggressive as well in defending the rights of human beings. This is not new,” Carrera said.
“Although we have been doing it for a while, at this time we are putting extra effort on programmes and resources [than we have] for past decades,” he added.
Mexico has been struggling in recent weeks to cope with a sudden influx of refugees from across the country and around the world – from El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti and countries in Africa – to its northern border towns, hoping to cross over into the US before the Trump administration further tightens border controls. Despite the sudden added pressure on its resources, Mexico has managed to offer Haitian refugees and others papers where the US has made it clear it will not.
“It would be great to get feedback from people actually deported to see if the programme is working,” said COFEM’s Anabella Bastida of Somos Mexicanos. Her team – together with other Mexican American groups – plans to continue to lobby the Mexican government to ensure that it keeps its pledge to offer support to fresh returnees.
The enactment of the Somos Mexicanos programme may take some time. Hugo Castro, a migrant labour rights advocate in Tijuana with the group Border Angels, said he was not yet familiar with the programme. Castro says he visits five shelters a day, and that there has of late been an increased flow of new deportees from the US.
COFEM and KIWA are also struggling to find ways to prepare people for the possibility of future raids and deportations. Both told Al Jazeera about pushes to prepare undocumented people to cope with a sudden separation from their families.
“It’s hard to overstate how disruptive this is, how wrenching this can be – people picked up in a raid might be the only source of income for a whole family, dressed their kids for school in the morning, cooks for their family, they might be a person supporting an elder parent or young baby. To imagine that person would be ripped away – imagine how it could affect everyone around them is extremely serious,” KIWA’s Suh said.
Bastida is helping to circulate a document allowing undocumented parents to temporarily entrust their children to relatives or friends in their absence.
‘We can’t hide’
Betty is an undocumented American with a “mixed” family of undocumented people, residents and also full US citizens.
When Donald Trump was elected, she says, she was depressed – worried for the future. But when her children, US citizens, awoke the next day, she was cracking jokes about the wall, she says, to lift their spirits.
“They didn’t say I am stupid, but they almost said it. Then, they were mad at me. And I started crying. I said, ‘Do you know who is the most vulnerable here? It’s not you. It’s me.'”
Betty has long campaigned for people in her community to know their rights. During our conversation, she bursts into tears.
“You want to deport me? Deport me! I’m going to be one of those people dead at the border.”
Despite her frustrations, Betty is resolute that she will not cower in the shadows. She insisted that, if only using her first name, Al Jazeera use her real name. She will continue her activism, on the streets if she has to, despite being vulnerable.
“We can’t hide. I think a lot of people know who I am. I just hope I’m not going to be the next target.”