Trump’s Mass Raids Didn’t Happen. But Immigrants Are Now Prepared If They Do.

Thanks to Trump's false alarm, immigrants know what to do when ICE comes knocking.

On Sunday, a 16-year-old didn’t open the door when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers came to her family’s home in Passaic, New Jersey. Agents first knocked at 1 a.m., claiming they were looking for someone who didn’t live there, and then came back around 5 a.m., demanding to be let in. 

The teenager, who was born in the U.S. and lives with her immigrant parents, had seen a “Know Your Rights” post on Instagram that said she didn’t need to follow their orders unless ICE agents had a warrant signed by a judge. When she asked the officers for the proper paperwork, they had nothing to show her. 

“She really stayed strong and didn’t open the door despite repeated and very loud banging,” said Sarah Cullinane, the director of immigrant rights organization Make The Road New Jersey, who spoke with the teenager after the attempted raid on Sunday. “We’re seeing teens exercise their rights and fight back, which shows the level of organization within the community.” 

Last Friday, Trump announced that mass raids, targeting roughly 2,000 undocumented families in 10 cities, would begin over the weekend, a threat he had been dangling since June. Government officials almost never publicize raids in advance to avoid jeopardizing the operation, but Trump’s goal was seemingly to appease his political base. Ultimately he sent fear coursing through the veins of immigrant households and communities.

While it’s true that many immigrants were so terrified of being arrested that they hid in their homes instead of going to work or dropping their kids off at school in the days leading up to the scheduled raids, Trump’s push for deportations had one beneficial side effect: He gave undocumented people, lawyers and activists the time to mobilize in an unprecedented way. 

“The silver lining, if there is one, is to see how the terror under which people have lived for years has empowered them to formulate plans and organize,” said Judy London, the directing attorney of the immigrants’ rights project at Public Counsel, a Los Angeles-based pro-bono firm. “And this was markedly different than with raids years ago, where there was no system in place.”

The silver lining, if there is one, is to see how the terror under which people have lived for years has empowered them to formulate plans and organize. Judy London, Public Counsel

London said ICE arrests are constantly happening in immigrant communities on a small scale, and that the response usually involves a group of lawyers scrambling to respond once raids are already underway. This time, she said, Trump’s advance notice allowed for a massive coordinated effort that involved hotlines and phone apps people could use to report ICE activity to immigrant rights organizations in each targeted city, and a network of attorneys ready to help any detained immigrants stay in the country. 

In reality, multiple news outlets reported that Trump’s threat of mass raids turned out to be only a handful of attempted arrests in cities such as Houston and New York. Despite the president’s claims that the raids were “very successful,” Cullinane said ICE was not able to take anyone from the few houses they came to on Long Island, thanks to educational campaigns that informed immigrants about what to do when officials come knocking. 

“None of that is because ICE wasn’t trying,” she said. “It was because immigrants knew their rights, exercised their rights and were able to effectively stop the raid.”

The American Civil Liberties Union launched a “Know Your Rights” campaign over social media, which told immigrants they didn’t need to let ICE in and should ask agents at their door for the proper paperwork. Immigrant organizations held information sessions at churches, politicians spoke out, and undocumented immigrants organized gatherings to inform one another about their rights, advocates told HuffPost. 

They were able to stand up for that other person, which was huge to see in all this fear. Minerva Perez, Organización Latino-Americana

But the biggest change from previous raids was that for the first time, advocates said, citizens not directly affected by the arrests were paying attention and wanted to get involved. 

The public is so appalled by this administration’s treatment of immigrants – from family separation to squalid border patrol stations – that the president’s announcement of mass arrests became a focal point for anger, immigration activists told HuffPost. 

“The unapologetic publicizing of these threatened raids activated a different level of consciousness for allies not directly impacted,” said Ambien Mitchell, an advocate at the New Sanctuary Coalition based in New York City. “Citizens are more outraged now than ever.”

London said that while community organizations and attorneys used to be the only ones teaching undocumented people about their rights, over the past few weeks she’s seen everyone from her staff to cashiers at grocery stores trying to protect immigrants. 

Storeowners posted information about the raids in their windows, and concerned citizens handed out leaflets in immigrant neighborhoods and shared “Know Your Rights” information on their Facebook pages.

Neighbors used texting threads to monitor ICE activity and volunteers offered to film any attempted raids, after being trained on how to spot a false alarm. Cullinane said that in New Jersey, people signed up to drive around neighborhoods and confirm ICE activity that had been reported to hotlines. 

“Allies developed sophisticated tools on all ends,” Cullinane added. “I think this new level of sophistication arises from the constant and repeated threat to immigrant lives.” 

The widespread community involvement and awareness led to fewer arrests.

Kaylin Garcia talks to reporters about the early morning raid that was conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
Kaylin Garcia talks to reporters about the early morning raid that was conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents at the El Paraiso Apartments complex in Houston, Texas, Monday, July 15, 2019.

On Saturday, ICE came to one family’s apartment building in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park. A neighbor heard the knocking and called the targeted immigrants to tell them not to answer, according to Mitchell, the advocate. She spoke with four immigrants who didn’t let ICE inside their homes over the weekend. 

In Houston, 19-year-old Kaylin Garcia took pictures of ICE agents knocking on doors in her neighborhood, posted them to her Facebook page and spread them around her community. As a result, at least one family from Honduras didn’t open their door to officers, according to the New York Times. On Long Island, a neighbor told ICE officers that the family they were targeting in the apartment building did not live there, said Minerva Perez, the executive director of Organización Latino-Americana. 

“They were able to stand up for that other person, which was huge to see in all this fear,” said Perez. “You’d think people might give each other up.” 

London said that while it’s heartening to see a wider population become so educated about immigrant rights, it’s a shame that the public’s action has only come after the implementation of policies that constantly endanger and dehumanize immigrant lives. 

The outpouring of support from communities and coordination from activists and lawyers is helpful, but Mitchell says the real heroes are the undocumented immigrants who stand up to ICE, despite a constant fear of being sent back to horrific violence in their home countries. Unlike other citizens, their feelings of terror don’t go away once the story of mass raids leaves the news cycle. 

“The impacted community members live with this on a daily basis,” she said. “What’s different now is this incredible courage and refusal to be intimidated and bullied.”