Don’t Open the Door

For Central New York’s migrant population, immigration raids are a living nightmare

By Emily Warne

It started at 7:30 a.m. on September 2 with a knock. A woman looked through her window and found two strangers outside her home, waiting for someone to answer. She didn’t open the door–you never open the door. Instead, she crept downstairs to another window. At least four police cars waited outside, and she watched as cops pulled a man she knew from the van in handcuffs. “Open the door,” one of the strangers said. And so she did.

That was all Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) needed. One officer shoved his knee in the gap and pushed the door open, ramming the edge into the pregnant woman’s stomach. Then they were in.

For the estimated 12 million undocumented or illegal immigrants in the United States, this scenario is their worst nightmare: raids in the morning or middle of the night, handcuffed trips to immigration centers, and days spent anxiously awaiting deportation. For the nearly 500,000 people living in New York, this is often a reality.

The pregnant woman couldn’t tell her story in public; her legal status was too precarious to risk angering officials. Instead, she told an activist interpreter from the immigration task force for the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS), one of the main organizations helping illegal immigrants around Onondaga County.

When the translator read her testimony was read aloud at an ACTS meeting on Sept. 8 at the Plymouth Congregational Church on East Onondaga Street, the reaction from longtime members was that of frustration, but not surprise. Members like Aly Wane have heard situations like this time and again. Listening to the account of the ICE raid, he looks worn out. He has been up for days, especially as the news of the raids from that weekend filtered in.

He has seen this far too often–families torn apart, officers with machine guns and police dogs interrogating suspected illegal immigrants, and bitter disappointment. For Wane, an immigrant from Senegal, it’s personal. There’s a lot of burnout, mostly because Wane and his political activists often feel that they just aren’t seeing the major immigration reforms they had hoped for.

Wane and the members of ACTS used to spend most of their budget on bail money for detainees whom they believed were unfairly incarcerated, a practice that proved to be in vain. “All we were doing was just giving them some more time before they were deported,” Wane said.

'The work is not glamorous; it involves attending many long meetings, writing letters to politicians, and sending heaps of e-mails. But this line of work is important to Wane and his colleagues because stories like the pregnant woman’s are becoming more common and more terrifying.

The officers systematically went through the house, the pregnant woman said. They separated the mothers from their children who had been awakened by the screaming. The women were told to sit at the kitchen table with an agent, while another agent guarded the door. The children were hungry and crying, but their mothers were not allowed to feed or comfort them. Both groups could only sit in terror until a translator spoke.

“If you come down to immigration, you will be able to stay here longer,” the translator told the mothers. And so, they went.

There they were given forms written in English, a language these undocumented immigrants did not speak. Most were given the equivalent of a court appearance ticket, better than the alternative of being detained at either the Onondaga County Justice Center or elsewhere. One man took a copy of the papers he and his family had signed in case someone could translate them. They were told the documents would help them stay in the United States longer.

The papers were titled “Voluntary Deportation Forms.”

Waves of anger shot through the crowd at the immigration task force meeting. They’re not upset–they’re downright pissed. The group includes families of illegal immigrants like Wane and citizens sick of seeing their neighbors or parishioners being stigmatized. The woman who was arrested could have been a neighbor, a co-worker, or a fellow mother.

Consider how many illegal immigrants Onondaga County detains: driving back from work, often at an under-the-table stint, at a local produce farm, or landscaping company. They may stop at a traffic light. Maybe they go through a yellow light just as it’s turning red. Soon they are face to face with a police officer who does not speak their language. Something gets lost in translation, and they find themselves signing voluntary deportation forms at immigration.

Wane and his colleagues are working with Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler to teach officers what they can and cannot ask regarding country of origin or status. Onondaga County Sheriff Kevin Walsh is considering how his patrols will handle such situations. He intends to follow Chief Fowler’s example, according to Pastor Craig Schaub of the Plymouth Congregational Church.

Barrie Gewanter, Wane’s colleague and the director of the Central New York chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, has been working on immigration issues in Syracuse for years. “It isn’t exactly relevant, nor is it good police work to ask for a country of origin when they’re stopped for a routine traffic stop or a broken tail light,” Gewanter said.

By the meeting, however, accounts of ICE raids earlier in September had circulated and translators were brought in to help gather information from family members about their detained loved ones. ICE did not return calls regarding this article.

Translators collected names, nicknames, past aliases, and birthdates of the detainees. They then tried to find them. ICE had already transferred many detainees to Alleghany County and others are still lost in a system that doesn’t necessarily want them to be found.

Unfortunately for illegals, that system is good at finding migrants outside detention, especially when it gets creative. The Lake Shore Limited train travels daily from New York City, through Syracuse and Rochester before arriving in Chicago, Ill., far from the U.S. border. However, as The New York Times reported in late August, border patrol units often board the train. If a passenger is of color or if his or her accent is too thick, border patrol might ask them for papers. If they’re not carrying any, the next stop could be questioning.

“There is no consistency to how they ask,” Wane said. “Every time you ride the train, it’s hard to tell what the experience will be like. It could be low-key, or it could be aggressive.” Wane believes these actions represent the big picture.

“For all the great rhetoric of the Obama administration, things have gotten worse at a grassroots level since he took office,” Wane said. “Now we’re at a point where the Republicans want absolute border security before giving us any kind of immigration reform–and absolute border security is impossible. Impossible.” Despite doubts, Wane is desperately trying to inspire dedication to reforms.

“I am an immigrant, but the reason that I’m so passionate about this is because I’ve been inspired by the people I’ve come in contact with and their courage and example,” he said. “And they had tremendous faith in the system.”

Wane doesn’t necessarily share that faith–he’s cautiously optimistic of the power of activism, but is wary that the lack of major reform will result in violent change. “There’s a lot of anger in the Latino community,” Wane said. “Illegal immigrants are almost part of the war on terror narrative, and it’s like saying that they are akin to terrorists.”

For the Syracuse Peace Council, that is one of the underlying problems. “The stereotypes are still winning,” Wane said with a shrug of his shoulders. He scratches his head and adjusts his glasses. The rubber bracelet on his wrist reads “Justice for Immigrants.” It looks almost as worn and weary as he does.

The pregnant woman has been feeling pain in her stomach for days; the force of the door might have caused trauma to her unborn infant. For now, all she, her family, and friends can do is wait. Wait to find out if the baby is OK. Wait to find out what their signatures on foreign documents will mean.

Wait to find out if they’ll be forced to disappear.

Illustrated by Andrew Casadonte.


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