By Ambar Pardilla
Cathleen Farrell, director of communications at the National Immigration Forum, stands in front of a poster at the office of the organization. (Photo credit: Ambar Pardilla)
When Lilia Alvarez attended a panel a couple of months ago, she was surrounded by people who asked if they should be worried about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducting raids throughout Washington, D.C. Although other attendees dismissed the prospect, arguing that the district’s status as a sanctuary city would protect immigrants from ICE officials, Alvarez cautioned them to be concerned.
Alvarez knew that a raid wasn’t so far-fetched, especially since she has prepared presentations for documented and undocumented immigrants to plan for the possibility of and understand their rights during an ICE raid. In those presentations, Alvarez tells her audiences that they should memorize the number of a family member that they would call if they are arrested, as the personal possessions on them will be taken too, and to try to stay silent.
“It’s hard to stay quiet, to remain silent when they’re asking you questions. It’s difficult to remain silent when law enforcement or ICE officials and officers are yelling at you or scaring you,” Alvarez, the director of legal services at the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), said in a phone interview.
CARECEN provides education, arranges legal, housing and immigration assistance and lobbies for local legislation to advocate for Latinos in the district. Along with other organizations, the center has concerns about the fates that immigrants face in the district following a raid in September which, according to a Sept. 28 press release from ICE, resulted in 14 arrests for various violations of U.S. immigration laws.
With President Donald Trump focusing on immigration issues, including building a border wall with Mexico and introducing a new travel ban, immigrant advocacy groups have closely tracked any and all policy changes from the administration. But the recent raid in the district represents both an obstacle and opportunity for organizations to push their own ideas for immigration reform.
“They do happen. They have happened. And they will continue to happen. Even with much friendlier administrations, they were happening. So it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, whether it is a sanctuary city or not,” Alvarez said.
Last month’s raid in the district was a part of a national four-day operation, named “Safe City,” which ended on Sept. 27 with 498 arrests across a collection of cities including Baltimore, Los Angeles, Denver, New York and Seattle, according to ICE’s press release. The release said that the operation “focused on cities and regions where ICE deportation officers are denied access to jails and prisons to interview suspected immigration violators or jurisdictions where ICE detainers are not honored.”
For Cathleen Farrell, director of communications at the National Immigration Forum, which advocates for bringing bipartisan support into solutions for immigration reform, the rhetoric ringing around undocumented immigrants and enforcement, including the focus on and feasibility of deporting many of them, has remained forceful but federal agencies have to recognize and respect the law and Constitution.
“Law enforcement agencies have a right and a duty to carry out their enforcement activities. But I think making people scared is probably not a great strategy,” Farrell said. “If people are here to stay, and a lot of people have been here a very long time without papers, they may just continue to stay.”
But the forum doesn’t advocate for all undocumented immigrants to have a special status, arguing that those who have committed violent crimes have to be punished, Farrell said.
Still, the uncertainty has both documented and undocumented immigrants dealing with the “disheartening, soul-destroying feeling of ‘I love this country, I’ve come to this country to make a contribution and to have a better life for my family and I’m not welcome,’” according to Farrell.
“I think I could not live with that kind of uncertainty in my life. I might just fold up the tent and go home,” Farrell said. “So I certainly admire them for their faith in this country, that eventually they’ll be given some kind of status. But it is not good to chase people further into the shadows. It is not good for this society, for our communities to lose all this human talent.”
From the beginning of Trump’s presidential campaign, Farrell said, he has tied immigration to national security, domestic policy and economics. Although, according to Farrell, the forum might not agree with all of Trump’s ideas, reform-related issues have become center to a national conversation about immigration.
“We are not where we want to be on a lot of the policies that we advocate for. One thing that is very important is that we are definitely talking about these issues in a way that maybe we wouldn’t have been,” Farrell said.
The attention has allowed the forum to focus on different aspects of their agenda, especially their call for “a 21st century immigration system,” Farrell said, which includes confronting issues with undocumented immigrants, immigrants with work visas and green-card holders.
“Our issue has become the centerpiece to a national conversation on who we are, what our values are and what kind of country we want to be,” Farrell said.
There hasn’t been a significant revamping of the immigration system since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, according to Farrell. She has often compared the absence of concrete action to driving a car with 1965 safety standards.
“The world is a different place than it was 50 years ago. So that’s why it’s not just about the 11 million undocumented, it’s absolutely about them, but it’s about the system itself and making sure that we have a system that responds to the needs of the country in a global society and the needs of the American worker and his or her family,” Farrell said.
Alvarez too said that the center has acknowledged that immigration is more than a domestic issue, as it requires an understanding of what influences the influx of immigrants to come into the U.S.
For Alvarez, the new administration doesn’t change the activism that the center has been doing for decades. The center has chosen to see the administration as “a special opportunity” to advocate for immigrants’ rights, highlighting the vulnerabilities in immigrant communities, and immigration reform, like creating other pathways for citizenship, according to Alvarez.
But the different directives from Trump and his administration have complicated how the center manages its mission to provide services for immigrants and Latinos in the district.
“What we expected yesterday is no longer today’s policy or is no longer today’s form, or today’s priority,” Alvarez said.
Along with keeping up with the administration’s actions, the center has seen changes in how the immigrant community in the district deals with their worries.
Since many households have members with mixed statuses—a family could have someone who has temporary protective status, legal or lawful permanent residence or U.S. citizenship—the suspicions about what could happen to distinct statuses has been destabilizing for families, according to Alvarez.
Despite the fears that families have—of raids, deportations and separations—Alvarez said some immigrants are still continuing to live and work in the district.
Alvarez said she has taken their strength into her advocacy.
“My place is not being compromised. I’m an advocate. I fight for people’s rights. But it’s time to be courageous and continue the work without hesitation. But it’s a very big opportunity. It’s a big opportunity for the public at large to become informed,” Alvarez said. “We found now that the Latino community is asking more questions, better questions, they’re more engaged. And those who are afraid, they’re afraid for a moment but then they understand that they have to get informed, that they can’t just dig their head in the sand and pretend that it’ll go away on it’s own.”