North Carolina immigrants and their allies are making it plain they will not go softly into President Donald Trump’s dark night when it comes to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tactics that they say have sown fear in their communities and separated children from their parents.
Since January, ICE has increased its presence to target immigrants in 12 counties across the state of North Carolina: Alamance, Chatham, Forsyth, Guilford, Iredell, Johnston, Mecklenburg, Montgomery, Randolph, Rockingham, Surry and, as of last week, Durham.
According to witnesses, ICE agents have seized fathers from outside their homes in front of their children, arrested sons at court appointments in front of local officials and detained nephews at probation appointments in front of their officers. And while many no longer feel safe in their communities, immigrants say they are fighting back.
“ICE is attacking our immigrant community financially, spiritually and by instilling fear in all of our hearts,” said Kelly Morales of Siembra NC. “We are not going to let them. This is our community, our families, our resistance, and we won’t sit idle as ICE continues to separate our families and leaves our children without their fathers.”
At a press conference last week, Morales announced two new initiatives to respond to the increase in ICE activity: a $10,000 “solidarity fund” to which impacted families will be able to apply for emergency cash assistance, and a probation and court accompaniment program, dubbed “No One Goes Alone.”
“We know that there is no accountability for ICE activities without us present,” Morales said. “We have seen ICE violate the constitutional rights of our immigrant community members by making threats and breaking car windows without warrants.…These volunteers will be trained to safeguard the rights of their immigrant neighbors, protecting public safety in all counties.”
Stephanie Hill described a heartbreaking experience she had with her husband and three children in early February, for which she sought help afterward from Siembra NC.
Isidro Lopez was backing out of his driveway around 6 a.m. on Feb. 10 in the Alamance County town of Graham when ICE agents stopped him and demanded that he exit the vehicle. According to Hill, one of the agents told Lopez that if he didn’t get out of the car, “we’ll break your window and drag you out.”
The agents then asked Lopez for his name and ID and told him they were looking for a man he recognized as a neighbor. And though they confirmed that Lopez wasn’t the person they were looking for, the agents arrested him anyway.
Hill, who is a U.S. citizen, had tears in her eyes as she explained in Spanish what his absence in their household has been like.
“We have three children and they don’t understand why he’s not around, especially the younger children who are three and one-and-a-half years old and keep asking and asking where he is,” she cried. “My husband has been in this country for 20 years….He helped me so much.”
Now Lopez is detained indefinitely at Stuart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., and the business he owned is not sustaining his family. He is currently working with an attorney to try and get a bond hearing, because he was never offered one through the early process.
“Just because I am an American citizen does not mean that our case is any better off,” Hill said. “We have to follow the same kinds of processes everyone else does, so in this particular case, I don’t have any more privileges than any other family, even with the color of my skin.”
Her words were interpreted by Siembra NC volunteer Nikki Marin.
Hill will be fighting an uphill battle with the immigration system — and that doesn’t include raising her and Lopez’s three U.S. citizen children alone, getting legal support for him and paying what is expected to be thousands of dollars in legal and bond costs.
Her story is not unique.
Ana Rosa Flores of Asheboro spoke along with Hill and a few other women at the same press conference. She explained how her nephew was detained by ICE while he was at a probation appointment.
He had previously faced charges for driving without a license and under the influence, but he had completed his probation, paid all his fines and fees and was headed to the appointment to turn in all of his final paperwork.
“He had complied with all of the court ordered fines; he had complied with all of the probation appointments, and the last day that he was going to go submit all the paperwork that he had taking driving classes and gone to his appointments and done all the things that were required of him — that day the ICE agents were at his appointment,” Flores said. “We don’t understand this. We don’t understand why if there are court-ordered appointments and court-ordered fines and people comply with them and people do all the steps to try to make things right; we don’t understand why then people are detained anyhow. We don’t think that’s fair.”
Her nephew is also at the Stuart facility in Georgia hoping for a bond hearing. Flores will continue to share his story and fight for his freedom.
“The community has to unite itself about this so that people know what happened, so that people know they have to show up for their court appointments and see the ways that we can help,” she said.
Policy Watch reached out to ICE to ask whether the agency has been targeting immigrants in courthouses and at probation appointments, but an agency spokesperson declined to say.
In an email, Lindsay Williams, Public Affairs Officer for the ICE Atlanta Office, which oversees activity in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, said that “We do not comment on enforcement actions and/or operations.”
Siembra NC reports that there have been at least nine immigrants detained recently in courthouses and at probation appointments, seven in residential areas, two at workplaces and one at a jail.
Sarah Hill McIntyre, a staff attorney with the Immigration and Refugee Rights Program at the North Carolina Justice Center, said those ICE enforcement activities taking place at or near courthouses or probation offices impede the state court system in a way that denies due process, blocks justice, and jeopardizes the safety and well-being of communities.
“When confronted by ICE officials at any time, it is important to remember that all residents of the United States — regardless of their immigration status— are guaranteed certain protections. Those arrested or detained should assert their right to remain silent as well as their right to have an attorney present for any interrogation, and should refrain from signing any documents until an attorney has had the chance to review those documents with them.”
She added that anyone who has been or knows someone who has been arrested or detained by ICE at or near a courthouse, probation office, or other state court system office, can contact her at the Justice Center for more information. (Note: the Justice Center is the parent organization of NC Policy Watch.)
Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero said last week officials saw an increase in ICE activity across the state around the same time over the past two years.
“This is not the first time we’ve held press conferences to stand in solidarity with these families,” she said. “It will not be the last time, unfortunately.”
She spoke about the impact of families seeing their loved ones disappearing into detention.
“It really does destroy the lives of so many families when the primary breadwinner is torn away and the impact [is felt] economically [and] emotionally, not just on the immediate family but on the community and quite frankly for most of our kids who go to school with these families,” she said. “Everyone feels it. My children feel it, because they feel the fear that their classmates feel; they know that their friends are being targeted and it is causing an immense amount of trauma.”
There have been at least 31 children separated from their families since this targeted ICE operation, according to Siembra NC.
Caballero was joined by several other city officials from Durham and Raleigh. They shared her sentiments and stood in solidarity with the immigrant women beside them.
“What our federal government is doing to our residents, and to our families and our communities is unconscionable, and what they’ve done in Raleigh has not gone unnoticed,” said Saige Martin, a Raleigh City Council member. “Immigrants are the backbone of our city, the life blood of who we are, how we thrive and how we progress; without you we are nothing and with you, we are everything. When you hurt, we all hurt. And so I stand before you today knowing that together we can all make a difference.”
One of the major complaints leveled at ICE and its policies by researchers and advocates is that many immigrants face grave dangers when they are returned to their native countries. A report published this month by Human Rights Watch found that 138 people deported to El Salvador since 2013 have been murdered, with 70 others sexually assaulted, tortured or kidnapped.
Others note that most of the immigrants targeted by ICE are living peaceful and law-abiding lives. Researchers at Syracuse University reported late last year that 64 percent of the immigrants in ICE custody in by April 2019 had no criminal convictions and all, and of those with convictions, the vast majority had either DUIs or convictions for illegal re-entry of the United States.
“ICE wants us to help them with their separation agenda by perpetrating this lie that all of these people had committed serious convictions or that they didn’t deserve a first or second chance,” Morales said.
As ICE steps up its enforcement, she said they will continue to step up their resistance.
Anyone who wants to make a donation to families outside the Triangle affected by ICE detentions can do so here.
To learn more about how to become a trained volunteer or to sign up with No One Goes Alone, visit this website.