Bearing Witness To Immigration Raids In The Trump Era

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Image used with permission by Favianna Rodriguez @favianna

Yesterday, as my classroom of first year college students completed an in-class essay about how immigration law impacts families and shapes social inequality, the lives of friends I love dearly were shattered when federal immigration agents showed up at their home as they prepared to leave for work. More than 15 years after Adrian Vera (pseudonym) and his family fled Argentina’s economic crisis and began anew, deboning chicken thighs for eleven cents a pound in rural Mississippi, they have become the latest casualty in President Trump’s senseless escalation of immigration enforcement.

I met Adrian and his family over a decade ago when I worked with the Mississippi Poultry Workers’ Center, MPOWER. After Adrian tripped on an uncovered floor drain at the chicken plant and fell on his tailbone, he was misdiagnosed by the local company doctor and sent back to work. Following a month of excruciating pain, Adrian took his x-rays to a chiropractor. One glance indicated his vertebrae were cracked in multiple locations. “I can’t touch your back,” said the adjuster, “you need to go see a spinal surgeon.” This was the beginning of a years-long struggle to regain his health, during which he remained in chronic pain and was unable to work.

Because the Workers’ Center supported him in his fight for medical care and workers’ compensation, I had the privilege of accompanying Adrian over several years as his interpreter and advocate, and for many years since as a friend of his family. As time wore on he would become severely depressed, his marriage would crumble, and his son would drop out of school. He would eventually return to the chicken plant, where he was subject to intense abuse by his immediate supervisor. But he would also reconcile with his wife, buy a house, take his family on vacations to the beach, watch his daughter play in her college marching band, and become a grandfather.

Every high and every low was shrouded by the reality that, as an undocumented immigrant, Adrian’s “illegality” made him deportable. At the drop of a hat, he could lose everything, and as he watched local police become increasingly involved in immigration enforcement, he worried about his family’s future. He longed for an opportunity to earn legal status in order to become a full-fledged member of society, stand up without fear for his rights at work, and better protect his family. He hoped Congress might take legislative action during the Obama years, but such relief never came.

Adrian eventually qualified to regularize his legal status through a provisional immigration visa. Moreover, his daughter qualified for DACA, the Obama administration’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that granted a temporary reprieve from deportation to qualifying young people. When I last visited with Adrian and his family in Mississippi a few months ago, he was still working long hours and struggling to make ends meet, but for the first time in years he had hope.

Then, yesterday, a mid-day text from his 22-year-old daughter, Carolina (pseudonym), made my blood run cold. “I need to talk to you it’s an emergency. Immigration came to my house this morning took my dad and my brother. Now they’re back. I’m in the house and they’re outside waiting for me. I’m not opening the door but they won’t leave idk what to do.”

Thankfully, Carolina knew not to open the door or speak with the agents, despite their pounding on doors and windows. She hid in a closet and I frantically joined her in calling and texting everyone I could think of who might be able to help. Among these were immigration attorneys, faith leaders, and members of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA). These allies arrived quickly on the scene, and they brought the Jackson-area news media with them.

More than three hours into her harrowing experience, several unmarked vehicles remained staked out around the home while police in ICE vests awaited their opportunity. The officers eventually secured a search warrant and forcefully entered the property. However, with immigrant rights advocates as witnesses and with TV cameras rolling, they cut their search of the property short and left without detaining Carolina.

A few lessons from yesterday’s raid at Adrian’s home may be helpful to others trying to predict how the Trump administration’s avowed hostility toward immigrants may play out:

First, this incident adds to the mounting evidence that ICE’s presence in the nation’s interior is rapidly escalating.

Second, thankfully, they didn’t detain this DREAMer, an outcome that was none too certain given news reports earlier this week that a DACA-eligible youth was detained in Washington state. Whether this is reflective of a broader policy or merely the whims of the agents on the ground remains unclear.

Third, it is very likely that Carolina was spared yesterday because of the critical mass of advocates and media who acted as witnesses to ICE’s actions as they unfolded outside the home. It would be instructive to know whether others have employed this tactic, and to what effect, in similar circumstances elsewhere.

Finally, Carolina made the presence of advocates and the news media possible by staying calm and knowing her rights. Her refusal to authorize the entry of ICE agents over the course of several hours, coupled with her quick outreach to key contacts and allies, gave folks time to show up and bear witness to yesterday’s events.

Meanwhile, Carolina’s father and brother are on their way to a detention center in Louisiana, and it remains to be seen whether Adrian’s provisional status, his 15+ years contributing to his adopted homeland, or his deep and abiding faith will protect him from deportation under Trump’s reign of terror.

May we bear witness, make visible that which is invisibilized, and continue to raise our voices against the criminalization of human mobility.

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