ICE raids confirm worst fears of young immigrants

Immigration sweeps are having a chilling effect on Dreamers, key leaders in the California resistance.


Ever since Donald Trump won the presidency four months ago, unauthorized immigrants have anxiously been on the lookout for any signs of redadas, or immigration enforcement raids. Hoax warnings proliferated on social media in January, claiming that officers from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, were setting up checkpoints across California in order to pick up and deport undocumented immigrants. Just a week ago, a police spokesman in Fontana, 50 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, assured local residents that the alerts were fraudulent. “We understand that fake news can spread quickly via social media and encourage you to always fact check things you read or hear,” the statement read.

But last week, the fake news became real. On the morning of Feb. 9, the Los Angeles office of the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights was flooded with calls from attorneys and eyewitnesses. It took immigration officials one day to confirm that they had arrested more than 160 people during an operation targeting “known street gang members, child sex offenders, and deportable foreign nationals with significant drug trafficking convictions.” According to advocates, the raid also picked up so-called collateral arrests—family members, roommates, and even people who opened doors who also happened to be undocumented.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers arrest a foreign national during a targeted enforcement operation in Los Angeles.
Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP

This wasn’t supposed to happen so soon—at least not until California could become the nation’s first “sanctuary state.” Many state lawmakers have been working behind the scenes to give shape to the anti-Trump “resistance” movement: fast-tracking legislation that would prevent local law enforcement from sharing information with ICE agents, while using state funds to help immigrants defend themselves in federal deportation cases.

Gov. Jerry Brown vowed at his recent State of the State Address that his administration would defend all immigrants, “every man, woman and child who has come here for a better life and has contributed to the well-being of our state.” According to a recent poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, 65 percent of adults in the state say local governments should pursue their own policies to protect the rights of unauthorized immigrants. 

These raids, meanwhile, and those likely to come, are having an impact on a burgeoning group of young activists: California’s Dreamers.

California has the largest immigrant population in the country. More than 10 million Californians were born outside of the U.S.; an estimated one million of those are undocumented. One out of 10 workers in the state is without proper documents and roughly 250,000 so-called Dreamers, children brought to the U.S. by undocumented immigrants, call the state home.

During the Obama years, the Dreamers were the friendly, unthreatening public face of the immigrant rights movement. They were between 15 and 30 years old, enrolled in school and thriving academically. Most notably, they had clean records: They didn’t cut Trump’s “bad hombres” profile. 

“They’re the good ones,” Maria Blanco, executive director of the Undocumented Student Legal Services Center, which provides immigration-related legal services for undocumented students at six University of California campuses, told me recently. “They came through no fault of their own; they are the future.”

Dreamers changed the discourse on immigration in California before Trump came along. They carried a  powerful message, even as the legislative proposal that would have granted them permanent residency—the DREAM Act—failed to pass Congress. Their activism did win them Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012, allowing those who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit. But since then, a growing number of Dreamers have started to reject the special treatment that was granted to them—and not to their parents. The anti-immigration rhetoric of Trump, as well as the white nationalism ethos of his key adviser, Steve Bannon, has further fanned this movement of resistance.

“Now they have a new consciousness about including everyone and not just young people,” Blanco said. “I believe they will become a real force in movements that go beyond Dreamers and that include all immigrants.”

That new consciousness is meanwhile adding to a growing resistance. Starting with California’s Proposition 8, which restricted same-sex marriage from 2008 through 2012, Dreamers protested alongside LGBT activists. Their get-out-the-vote campaigns mobilized many Latinos, granting former President Barack Obama 71 percent of the California vote. And their efforts to obtain in-state tuition prompted the creation of resource centers across the state, providing a safe haven and extensive counseling services for Dreamers and all other immigrant students.

Dreamers have continued to be activists. Soon after Trump signed his travel ban, for example, protests broke out at major airports in the West, including Denver, Phoenix and Seattle. Among those who showed up to the impromptu protests at Los Angeles International Airport were Dreamers. But, thanks to the fear of immigration raids—fears that have now proven well-founded—not every Dreamer who wanted to be at the protests took part. The Trump administration’s attitude toward undocumented immigrants is already having a chilling effect.

Karen Zapien, a Dreamer activist, told me she was moved by the response she saw on social media. Zapien herself didn’t go to Los Angeles International Airport. The 23-year-old stayed home, fearful, though many of her friends did rally at the airport.

“I have such a huge sense of despair these days,” said Zapien. “It’s the first time in my life that I see myself not going out to the marches.”

Zapien was brought to the U.S. illegally from Mexico by family members, when she was just a year old. Her parents joined her six months later, by way of a dangerous crossing along the Arizona border.

Her story isn’t all that different from those of many other California Dreamers. She realized she was undocumented while she was in high school, and soon after realized she couldn’t receive financial assistance to attend her university of choice, University of California, Los Angeles. When DACA became a reality, Zapien was among the first students to benefit. She’s now on her last year at California State University, Fullerton, even as she juggles three jobs—accountant, a waitress, and intern at the Internal Revenue Service.

Despite her fear of deportation, Zapien believes that the immigrant rights movement in California is now the strongest it’s ever been.

Zapien graduates this May, and soon after her DACA permit will be up for renewal. But there isn’t much that she and others Dreamers can do now, other than hope that their status stays protected.

During his campaign, President Trump promised to end the program. But late last month, a day before he signed the travel ban executive order, he seemed to tone down his rhetoric during an interview. “I do have a big heart. Were going to take care of everybody,” he said. “Where you have great people that are here that have done a good job, they should be far less worried.”

Dreamers like Zapien remain unconvinced, partly because the raids seem less targeted than officials suggest, and partly because among those who were caught in the latest raid was 54-year-old Manuel Mosqueda López. A Mexican national with no criminal record, Mosqueda López was at home early in the morning when five ICE agents asked him for papers, allegedly on the lookout for another man.

Contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Los Angeles, California. 

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