Immigration raids causing fear among many in N.O., area

As immigration agents handcuffed Irma Lemus, her toddler daughter stood frozen in fear, while the baby in her husband’s arms reached out toward her. “Can you please let me say good-bye to my kids?” asked Lemus, a native of Honduras.

She said the agents refused and told her to stop crying, that it wasn’t her country anyway.

Immigration agents interrupted a weekly Bible study that a man named Omar, who didn’t want his last name used for fear of retaliation, was attending with his wife and two young daughters. The agents allegedly asked the five men in the group to put down their Bibles and step outside to be handcuffed and fingerprinted.

After hearing countless stories like these, hundreds of Catholic nuns teamed up with the New Orleans Catholic Archdiocese and Loyola University’s Jesuit Social Research Institute to hold a rally Saturday in front of Loyola. There, nuns representing more than a dozen religious communities read statements urging the House of Representatives to act on the comprehensive immigration-reform bill the Senate passed in July.

If it becomes law, which seems unlikely because of stiff opposition in the House, the bill would beef up enforcement but would also create an overhauled visa system and paths to citizenship and legal work status for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

“People could come out of the shadows and apply to become legal,” said migration specialist Susan Weishar, of the Jesuit Social Research Institute.

People in southern Louisiana should especially understand the need for immigration reform, said Weishar, noting that a 2006 study found that more than half of the workforce rebuilding the region after Hurricane Katrina was Latino and that half of those workers were undocumented.

“We would not be where we are in our recovery effort without them,” she said.

In light of an unprecedented wave of immigration raids in the New Orleans area, the nuns also asked on Saturday that undocumented immigrants be treated with dignity.

“The Ursulines of New Orleans are concerned about the unwelcoming climate which seems to exist concerning the poorer immigrants seeking to be part of our country,” said Sister Virginia Cirone, who read a statement for the Ursuline Sisters. She was joined in her plea by Sister Jane Remson of the Congregation of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who said that “policies that cause people to live in fear and in separation from their families … are unworthy of us as members of the human family.”

Erlin San Martin Gomez spoke about how he was stopped by immigration agents on the way to pick up his child from a babysitter. He was fingerprinted, detained in the back of a van and told that, even though his child was still at the baby sitter’s, he couldn’t call anyone, he said. Instead, the agents drove around finding and fingerprinting others, which they jokingly called “hunting,” he said.

Gomez was released after a month because his wife and other women advocated for his release along with other fathers who are part of the Congress of Day Laborers, a project of the Workers Center.

Bryan Cox, local spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and immigration advocates agree on one point: The only people taken into detention are those who have a prior deportation order or a criminal history. All of the people cited in this story had prior deportation orders.

Sister Maura O’Donovan, a key organizer of the rally, stopped short of criticizing ICE agents, despite the many claims of harassment she has heard. “I’m sure the people who are doing this are doing their jobs,” she said. “They’re just agents of the government that made these laws. We’re asking that the laws be changed.”

Louisiana already had a high level of immigration enforcement before this year, when it seems to have intensified. According to 2012 data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, Louisiana had the highest number of ICE arrests per capita in the country. It has one of the highest rates of deportation proceedings.

These days, said Jacinta Gonzales, an organizer for the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, she hears about “community raids” four or five times a week.

“It is terrifying,” she said.

While ICE agents across the nation are assigned to find and deport specific individuals, the New Orleans raids allegedly cast a wide net toward anyone who looks Latino in local gathering spots such as laundromats, grocery stores, parks, nightclubs and apartment complexes. Agents use mobile fingerprint scanners to check people for a past history with immigration authorities or courts of any sort; they detain anyone who is flagged and continue to drive around looking for others to fingerprint.

National groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Immigration Policy Center claim that immigrants are stopped randomly in other places and forced to submit to fingerprint scans. But in no other city are these raids happening in community locations on a consistent basis, Gonzales said. “This isn’t being seen in other places.”

It’s difficult to tell whether the ICE community sweeps are being conducted by agents acting on their own initiative or whether the agents are part of a new program called the Criminal Alien Removal Initiative.

An ICE fact sheet on the Department of Homeland Security website says that targeting on the basis of ethnicity is frowned upon: “Racial profiling is simply not something that will be tolerated, and any indication of racial profiling will be treated with the utmost scrutiny and fully investigated,” the fact sheet reads.

ICE spokesman Cox denied that ICE goes looking for random people to deport. “As a matter of policy, ICE does not do immigration raids,” he said. “ICE only conducts targeted enforcement. The Criminal Alien Removal Initiative teams go to a pre-selected location, looking for that individual. In most instances, there is one person at that location who is wanted. But the people around them, yes, absolutely, they’re going to check their status. They would be fingerprinted. And if the individual (being sought) is not there, they may very well check the status of other people who are there. There is some discretion and gray area.”

Cox said he doesn’t know whether agents have to announce who their target is.

In any case, the result of the local enforcement efforts is widespread fear, Weishar said. Since the raids began in earnest about a year ago, a man in her congregation is afraid to walk home by himself after church services, she said.

Erika Zucker, a policy advocate at Loyola’s Workplace Justice Project, which helps low-wage workers collect their wages, said the raids make undocumented workers less likely to assert their right to be paid for work they’ve done.

Some have suggested that President Barack Obama could take action, even if Congress doesn’t pass new legislation. He could, for example, stop the deportation of immigrants who are primary caretakers of minor children.

On Saturday, Lorenzo Torres, 18, spoke at the Loyola rally as one of the so-called “Dreamers,” who came to the United States before their 16th birthdays and received a two-year temporary visa through an order Obama issued last year.

Torres, at age 9, accompanied only by a paid people smuggler, walked from Mexico through the deserts of New Mexico to reunite with his mother in the U.S.

Though he now has documents, he still worries that he will come home and find his family gone, he said. “I don’t want to see my family broken again,” he said.

Currently, there is no path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. So, even though Lemus’ children are American citizens, she is still scheduled to be deported. After 18 days in custody, she was released with an ankle electronic-monitoring bracelet and ordered to report, in person, each week.

Her oldest son, Joseph, 8, is old enough to understand what is going on. So he asks her each Wednesday. “Will you be here when I get home from school?”

“I have to tell him, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be home, trusting in God,’” she said.

“But I say that to calm him down,” Lemus said.

“Because I can never be sure. At any time, they could send me away.”