While hundreds of people around the country have been arrested by federal immigration officers in recent days, the Kansas City suspicions proved unfounded.
But the rapid mobilisation there showed that with communities on edge as the Trump administration’s immigration crackdowns begin, grassroots groups are learning to act quickly to form information-sharing networks and raise awareness of legal rights.
In US cities, more than 680 people were arrested last week by Ice officers, including in and around Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, San Antonio and New York City, according to a statement on Monday from John Kelly, the Department of Homeland Security secretary. Kelly said the operations “targeted public safety threats, such as convicted criminal aliens and gang members, as well as individuals who have violated our nation’s immigration laws, including those who illegally re-entered the country after being removed and immigration fugitives ordered removed by federal immigration judges”.
Immigration advocates have started to form plans to respond to these raids in various forms.
In Austin, an initiative called Sanctuary in the Streets has trained US citizens to form a literal physical barrier between undocumented immigrants and enforcement agents. When agents arrive at the door, undocumented immigrants can call for help and one or more US citizens will quickly arrive to stand in front of the door, watching, challenging and filming law enforcement with the goal of ensuring constitutional rights are respected and encouraging a media spotlight.
“Any time we heard of an action happening, folks responded, were ready to go, knew what to do,” Cristina Parker, of Grassroots Leadership.
But with last weekend’s immigration raids, she said: “We found, though, that a lot of the actions happened so quickly that a lot of times folks arrived there and it would already be gone, already be done, so that’s definitely something to think about.”
News of a surge in immigration enforcement activity in Austin began to spread on social media on Thursday. Ice said that 51 people were arrested in the San Antonio-Austin area; 23 of them had criminal convictions. Though the agency said it does not set up checkpoints or conduct indiscriminate sweeps, that the majority of those detained did not have convictions will add to anxiety among unauthorised immigrants that they are now at increased risk of deportation even if they are not viewed as dangerous.
Parker said that the number of detentions was “extremely beyond the norm” and led to a flood of calls to a hotline where callers can report Ice activity and seek advice. “We’ll usually have one or two calls every day or couple days, something like that. And we had hundreds of calls over the past three or four days,” she said.
Parker claimed that Austin was singled out because the liberal-leaning city has led the fightback in Texas against attempts by the state and federal governments to compel local authorities to co-operate with immigration enforcement. Texas’ Republican governor, Greg Abbott, this month cut off $1.5m in criminal justice grants to Travis County, which includes Austin, because the sheriff is limiting the circumstances in which her department will hold suspects for Ice agents.
“There’s been a lot of progress here locally in the immigrant community being able to fight for and win some good policies at the local level, some people call us a sanctuary city because of that,” Parker said. “From the governor to apparently now the federal government, folks want to make an example out of Austin for having the audacity to disagree.”