When the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Obama Administration suddenly announced on Dec. 23 that they would start conducting raids to take into custody Central Americans who were here illegally and missed critical court dates, it didn’t take long for panic to set in around Chelsea.
With a huge population of Central American migrants who have arrived over the last two years seeking economic opportunity in the U.S. and fleeing violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the news travelled fast and that large population went into panic mode.
Social media would light up with erroneous reports of ICE being in Chelsea or Eastie every time a black sedan drove down a street.
Spanish language radio broadcast false alerts when people would call up for supposed ICE raids on certain streets – which turned out to only be routine police patrols.
It was all unfounded, and unfortunate, but illustrated the panic that can be aroused at any moment in the large communities of people who have arrived in the area over the last few years – once known as “unaccompanied minors.”
“There was a panic every time people saw a black car and the radio stations were conveying the information,” said Gladys Vega of the Chelsea Collaborative. “You wouldn’t believe the panic. One man came to our office and wouldn’t go to work because he thought ICE would come get him. He risked losing his job, and there was nothing happening yet. People should be wise, but educated.”
The panic, however, is not without reason.
DHS and ICE did start conducting raids on Jan. 2 after announcing the effort rather quietly on Dec. 23 before Christmas. They announced that 121 persons had been taken into custody in North Carolina, Georgia and Texas, though advocates believe smaller numbers have been taken across the U.S. and they believe the raids could soon happen in areas of Massachusetts like Chelsea and Eastie. The federal government is not broadcasting its game plan, so no one really knows for sure.
To that end, the Collaborative is holding a community meeting for those affected on Jan. 13 at 5:30 p.m. at the Collaborative. It will be a safe, informational meeting for individuals and families. Then, on Jan. 14, there will be another meeting for stakeholders in the community – such as the Chelsea Schools.
The featured speaker will be Oscar Chacon of Alianza Americas, a national expert on the issue.
“Chelsea has not been affected yet, but we need to prepare for the worst-case scenario,” said Vega. “There is not need to put people in a panic, but we want them to be prepared and have the tools ready and the information ready if something does happen.”
That, she said, includes putting together a team to go door-to-door after the meetings.
“We’re going to be getting together the non-profits and creating a Chelsea raid response team going door-to-door to raid education and preparedness,” she said. “We want to make sure anyone who opens the door is very careful and that they have code words and emergency contacts ready for their kids. If a parent gets taken away for deportation and the kids come home and no one is there, they need to be ready to have emergency contacts and accommodations. Nothing is happening here now, but we are the largest immigrant community in Massachusetts.”
Chacon said it is a complicated issue, and he isn’t sure what brought on the newest set of raids right now.
The reason for the raids, however, is due to the fact that the Central Americans have missed court dates that were set for them when they crossed the border and were taken into custody. Once in custody at the border, which typically was in Texas, the individuals would submit information as to where they were going, and then they would be released and allowed to travel to that location. Later, a court date before an Immigration Court judge would be set up and notification mailed to the address given at the border.
Many folks, since early 2014 and up until right now (as there has been another surge recently from Central America), chose to come to Chelsea or East Boston where there is a huge Central American population and where many of their relatives or friends resided.
However, a vast majority of those folks in this area and nationwide, ended up missing those hearings. That, Chacon said, resulted in a deportation order being issued by the judge when the individual didn’t show up.
“That’s kind of where all of this beings,” he said. “Because there are so many people over the last two years who have come in, there is simply not enough lawyers – and never could be – to adequately and expediently represent everyone in all of these cases. Second, these people com broke. Upon coming here, they don’t have the means to retain the services of a lawyer. The result is when the hearing is scheduled, these people have not found an attorney to represent them. So, many decide not to show up. Other simply move from the place they first came to live. Someone may come to Chelsea first and then move to Everett, but forget to send the change of address. When the court hearing notification comes to the Chelsea address, they never get the information In both cases, they don’t go and that results in a deportation in absentia order.”
He said that right now, they believe there are about 15,000 such cases that fit the profile, with likely more to come.
“We first got the news of what is now happening in the Washington Post on Dec. 23 and tried to get more information about it, but weren’t successful,” he said. “When we did get more information, we tried to get President Obama to back down and ask the DHS to back up, but without success. On Saturday, Jan. 2, they conducted the raids in North Carolina, Texas and George. Now, we know the raids are going on in a few other places too…It is a special operation focused on Central Americans.”
Chacon said he will offer common sense tips, explain what rights people have, inform people as to what is going on right now, and go over the legal services that are available.
“If ICE comes knocking at the door at 5 a.m., many wonder if they have the right not to let them in,” he said. “Most people in that situation really don’t know. They see armed people with ‘ICE’ on their chest and they’re scared. In their countries, when people like that come to the door and you don’t open up, they break down the door and will likely kill you. People need to understand that’s not how things go down in the United States of America.”
Another situation that is also unfolding is the fact that the intended target might have moved, but the person who now lives there might also be wanted by ICE.
Chacon said it is all very curious, and politically speaking, an odd move in what is an election year.
“This type of move doesn’t sit well with Latino voters,” he said. “From an election perspective, I’ve been scratching my head and wondering what is the goal of the Obama Administration. It’s either they think the Latino vote doesn’t matter or they are so confident they will get the Latino vote no matter what. People, especially women and children running away for they lives, deserve support and protection, not deportation.”