Niños in New Bedford: Some (Almost) Brief Comments on This Week’s ICE Raids

Hi again, folks. I’m hoping to finish the news roundup later today, but first, I think we need to have a really difficult conversation about ICE raids and immigration. This isn’t going to be fun for anybody involved, and I’m sorry in advance. Were we speaking in person, I would take you out for ice cream after. (Consider this paragraph my virtual ice cream to you.)

The Background

I’ve seen a lot of people interacting with this article by the Washington Post, and also this article by the New York Times, to talk about an increase in ICE raids in at least six states in the country. It is a scary time, and there is a lot of evidence suggesting that immigration officials have stopped prioritizing people suspected of criminal activity in favor of simply rounding up every brown person who can’t produce papers fast enough. And we need to be talking about that, and planning, and responding.

But to understand the terror that these populations are experiencing, and to understand how to best organize and react, we also need to talk about the history of ICE raids in this country. The New York Times article includes quotes like “This is new” and describes people swept as demographics “that the government had not previous paid much attention to.” (And though the Washington Post article does eventually do a great job of describing enforcement patterns, they similarly lead by describing raids against people with no criminal record as “an apparent departure from similar enforcement waves during the Obama administration.”) These things are true, in the broadest sense of the term, because eventually the Department of Homeland Security did repeal Secure Communities in favor of a Priority Enforcement Program under President Obama. But that was in November 2014, six years into his presidency and only a couple of years before Secure Communities was put back in place with a vengeance last month. The reality is that many of these communities are afraid because they know what to expect. They have seen — and lived through — this before.

The Background Background

By way of example, let’s look at a local bogeyman here in MA: the New Bedford raids. These raids happened ten years ago — before I was settled in this area, or had even graduated law school — but I can tell you about them in excruciating detail anyway, because they are still talked about so often by both colleagues and the larger local community.

The New Bedford raids were part of a raid strike by ICE in 2006–2007, along with other, similar workplace raid efforts throughout the nation (such as ‘Operation Wagon Train,’ which resulted in raids throughout the midwest that swept up almost 2,000 people). These efforts were part of an upward trend in raids conducted by the National Fugitive Operations Program — by 2007, it had a budget of over $2M and was apprehending thousands of people per year, although it was pretty much failing in its official stated goals because only 9% of them were convicted of criminal charges. In many of these raids, people who ultimately coughed up documentation of legal status were detained for months and months before they could prove it. As far as I can tell, the New Bedford raid details were extremely representative of the contemporary national realities, which share a lot of similarities with those we face today.

In March 2007, over 300 ICE officials swarmed a single factory in New Bedford that was known for employing undocumented immigrants under sweatshop conditions. The officials simply split the entire factory into two groups: those who could produce documentation and those who couldn’t. About 362 people were arrested, detained, and mostly sent to Texas to await deportation proceedings; many of them were caregivers for small children who were U.S. citizens. ICE repeatedly kept the child and welfare department here from implementing efforts to assist these families, eventually prompting the governor of MA to call the entire thing “a humanitarian crisis.”

The story gained national attention, in large part due to the indiscriminate nature of the raid, the immediate transport of those detained across the country, and the documentation of extremely poor detention conditions. (It also eventually led to a lawsuit on behalf of the workers, which is a silver lining on this whole thing but also a whole other story). Literally hundreds of families were impacted, in a community that only has about 100,000 people total living in it. Other than some allegations about creating false IDs and hiring practices for two people who weren’t even swept up in the raid itself, the whole thing had absolutely nothing to do with criminal allegations; it was simply designed to show the force of Immigration and Customs Enforcement as a department. This is what people are afraid of: an over-funded, over-armed department that could swoop in, jail, and deport hundreds of people just trying to live their lives at any given moment. And they aren’t afraid because they don’t know what is going to happen to them; they are afraid because they do.

The Foreground

So why am I telling you all of this? And, more importantly, what do we do with all of it? Though I don’t claim to have all the answers to a difficult situation, I can at least provide some thoughts (and assure you that I’m not sharing human tragedy for the fun of it, while I’m at it). Here are some preliminary suggestions for how to put this information to good use:

  1. Help concrete fears to lead to concrete planning. People are afraid of very specific things happening to them, because they have happened before, and that means they can also benefit from planning how to handle those specific things. A lot of advocacy communities right now have excellent resources for pre-raid planning and other forms of safety planning. Individual families have individual needs, and a lot of those needs are going to involve people’s safety; helping people organize their thoughts on those needs gives them agency as well as helping them logistically.
  2. Don’t assume that “Know Your Rights” assistance will cover all immigration needs. A lot of folks can benefit from information about how to handle ICE presence, especially in situations like a single ICE officer showing up at your door. But a lot of folks do know their rights, and when it’s over 300 officers with a SWAT team at your workplace all of that can go out the window very easily, regardless. Helping people know their rights is a good start, but it is only a starting place.
  3. Start from the presumption that ICE can, and ICE has, and ICE will, whenever you learn new information. This is an organization that historically has enjoyed a lot of backing, a lot of funding, and a lot of power. Its target demographic, in contrast, is one of the most vulnerable populations living in America. When hearing new stories, it’s always important to trust and verify, because scared people can create a rumor mill like nobody’s business. But in general, I recommend that you start from a presumption that ICE practices being reported probably are happening, instead of starting from a presumption that practices are being exaggerated.

We’re heading into dark times, folks — and unlike building a wall, or banning all refugees, this bit of immigration horror show is not uncharted waters. We have to expect to see smoother sailing.

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