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The ICE effect

Immigration officers detained 20 people in Dane County in September, setting a community on edge

  • 15 min to read
The ICE effect

Jennifer doesn’t usually work the early morning shift at the convenience store, but she picked up a four-hour slot starting at 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 21.

She was interrupted by a phone call at 6 a.m.: “This is an officer, there's been an emergency. You need to come home now.” Jennifer started panicking. Was her husband having a heart attack? Was he sick?

She returned home to find five SUVs in the area around the house and a couple of men who looked like they belonged in a SWAT team. Still confused, she spotted her husband on the lawn in his pajamas.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer told her they were taking her husband — originally from Mexico, he entered the country without documentation around 1990 — because he had missed a court appointment. Jennifer found that impossible. The couple had been working on gaining documented status for years, spending thousands of dollars in legal fees. He would never, ever, miss a court appointment, she said.

Her six kids were still in the house; they hadn’t left for school yet. Her brother-in-law was there, too, and when he looked out the door to see what was going on, ICE officers arrested him.

At her house for almost two hours, ICE officers asked for her husband’s identification (he had both a temporary Social Security card and a temporary working permit), told her to call her lawyer and said she needed to calm down. They arrested a few more people in the parking lot of the apartment complex next door. Then they left.

“I just broke down in the middle of the driveway,” said Jennifer, a Wisconsin native who didn’t want to use her real name in order to protect her privacy. “I fell to the ground.”

From Friday, Sept. 21, to Monday, Sept. 24, ICE detained 20 people in Dane County and a total of 83 in Wisconsin. City officials said it was the biggest roundup the county has seen in years. Some of those detained were not targeted, but rather picked up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unlike previous ICE operations, the Madison Police Department said ICE didn’t give them a heads up. ICE maintains it contacted local law enforcement.

The scale, surprise and swirling rumors on social media fed fear and panic in the city’s immigrant and Latino communities. At least a few businesses closed their doors and a significant number of Latino children stayed home from school, the Madison School District said.

The community jumped into action to provide legal defense, mental health support, accurate information to the media and answers for families of detainees.

The work didn’t end there. More than a month later, community organizations, city officials, legal representatives and advocates are dealing with the lingering effects, and preparing for ICE officers to return. Counselors worry about traumatized kids, businesses are learning how to protect their employees and immigration attorneys are hoping to raise money to fund more deportation defense.

ICE Presser 2 (CT)

Gissell Vera, 18, right, embraces a friend after sharing the story of her uncle’s arrest by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in Milwaukee. “They’re basically destroying our family. Why are they doing that? It’s just chaos,” she told the crowd at Centro Hispano.

What happened?

ICE operates regularly in the Madison area, picking up one or two individuals a week, said Aissa Olivarez, an immigration lawyer. So when news started trickling in about the six arrests made in Madison on Sept. 21, that signaled something different was happening.

Fabiola Hamdan, Dane County immigration affairs specialist, immediately contacted the Immigration Enforcement Rapid Response Team. Their mission: to provide families affected by deportation with social services and legal support. 

The team was formed soon after Donald Trump was elected president, and “lo and behold, of course it was proven right that we needed this group,” said Shiva Bidar, a Madison alder and rapid response team member focusing on mental health and well-being.

The group, which has been meeting semi-regularly over the past two years, includes Bidar, Hamdan, Olivarez, Deputy Mayor Gloria Reyes, Centro Hispano executive director Karen Menendez Coller and representatives from the Madison Metropolitan School District, the Dane Sanctuary Movement, Voces de La Frontera, United Way and the Latino Academy of Workforce Development.

The public point of contact for the group is Hamdan, whose phone number was published in multiple news stories about ICE arrests. She received over 500 calls from family members of the detainees, businesses asking whether they should close up shop and scared residents. She also got angry calls disparaging immigrants.

“The ones that get me is when a teenager calls me, ‘My mom has been detained,’ it’s like ah, Jesus,” Hamdan said.

It’s the biggest roundup Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney has seen in 12 years. ICE was also picking up “collaterals,” people not on the list but who happened to cross paths with ICE, something Assistant Police Chief Randy Gaber hasn’t seen in several years. The 83 people were scooped up across 14 Wisconsin counties, and as of the end of September, there are reportedly 167 still on ICE’s list of targets in Wisconsin.

ICE picked up individuals from Russia, Thailand and Vietnam. At the time, Kazbuag Vaj, the co-executive director of Freedom Inc., pointed out that ICE activity affects Hmong and Cambodian populations as well, saying, “We are in crisis also.”

On Sept. 21, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin held a press conference and said: “We want to find out everyone who was taken by ICE, so we can make contact with them and do our best job to ensure that their rights are protected.”

On Sept. 23, the rapid response team met and helped MMSD put together a statement: “We also know that many of our students may be experiencing trauma around this activity, and our student services staff are ready to support.”

On Sept. 24, Centro Hispano held its own press conference, this one attended by about 300 people. “They’re basically destroying our family. Why are they doing that? It’s just chaos,” one family member of a detainee said.

On Sept. 25, Bidar and Reyes visited kids at East High School. “One of the youth broke down crying and said, ‘It’s just not fair that our homes are not safe,’” Bidar said.

On Sept. 26, Centro Hispano held a meeting for families of detainees, offering legal advice and mental health care. “You saw the trauma that had been inflicted … It felt really heavy,” Menendez Coller said. 

Throughout the week, a group of young activists including students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison posted photos online of ICE vans spotted around town, Menendez Coller said. At one point, ICE officers were right across the street from Centro Hispano on the south side.

“I felt very helpless. It’s kind of ironic to see an ICE van across the street from the South Madison Police station,” Menendez Coller said. “No one can do anything.”

As rumors and speculation spread on social media — after ICE was spotted at McDonald’s near East High School the story falsely grew into “East High is on lock down” — La Movida radio station and Centro Hispano stepped in to quell the panic and false information, providing live updates online and on air.

La Movida

Mario Garcia Sierra with Voces de la Frontera, Ald. Shiva Bidar and La Movida co-founder Lupita Montoto at La Movida radio station to provide information about ICE activity in Wisconsin, on Sept. 24, the end of the four-day enforcement surge.

Unanswered questions

A big question remains: Did ICE tell the Madison Police Department they were coming?

According to ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer, yes. He said any “rumors or suggestion” to the contrary are inaccurate.

Assistant Chief Gaber disagrees. In the past, ICE officers called him on his cell phone to notify him of their operations, specifying the individual, location and reasons for the arrest. Such clear communication is crucial for public safety, Sheriff Mahoney said, “so we don’t have cops running after cops.”

But during the September arrests, a new ICE supervisor called Gaber’s desk phone and left a message simply asking Gaber to call him back. Gaber didn’t get the message right away — he was at the Middleton workplace shooting on Sept. 19, and participated in training all day on Sept. 20. By the time he heard the message on Sept. 21, ICE was already in town.

During the activity, ICE relayed its locations to Dane County dispatch in case a citizen called in a suspicious vehicle, Gaber said. The dispatch center is a standalone department managed by the county executive, Mahoney said. Its staff doesn’t answer to the sheriff or police chief and did not relay the information to the MPD until a lieutenant contacted dispatch to specifically request it.

Mahoney said ICE called him about a week before the arrests, asking how local dispatch worked, but didn’t give any indication that officers were on the way.

Gaber is “optimistic” that ICE will go back to normal communication with the MPD; he has since received forewarning of an arrest with all the usual specifics: location, person, time and objectives.

On Sept. 25, ICE put out a statement saying more than half of those detained in the four-day Wisconsin surge had criminal histories. The release highlighted four individuals who committed serious crimes like sex with a minor and child enticement.

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Madison Democrat, wants to know the details behind the detention of those with lesser or no criminal histories. A May USA Today analysis found that under Donald Trump’s presidency, ICE has arrested a monthly average of 4,143 undocumented immigrants without criminal records, compared to 1,703 a month during former President Barack Obama’s final two years in office.

“Those were four pretty bad folks. I think they should be deported. But what about the other 79 was our question,” he said. “And they’ve still yet to give us that info.”

Pocan met with ICE officials in September, but said he didn’t get many answers.

“They did go out of their way to say, ‘Look, this is not how we operated under George Bush or Barack Obama, this is how we operate under Donald Trump,’” he said.

Pocan ended up filing a Freedom of Information Act request, asking for information about criminal offenses, communications between ICE and local law enforcement and ICE presence in Madison.

Soglin also wants answers. He sent a letter to the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House accusing ICE officers of a “deliberate attempt to conceal the targeted activities while providing cover so they could say they notified local law enforcement in a timely manner.” Soglin demanded an investigation and report.

He hasn’t received a response to the letter and is planning to schedule an ICE meeting in the next couple of weeks, after the city budget process is complete. 

A push for public defenders

The first time Jennifer visited her husband in the Kenosha County Detention Center, “he was just crying and crying. And just heartbroken. All he kept saying was ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, take care of my kids,’” she said. “It was horrible.”

She brought their daughter for a second visit, and dad blew kisses through the security glass.

Through Hamdan, Jennifer connected with Madison immigration lawyer Matthew Gillhouse, who found that their family petition process had been allowed to lapse, and therefore must be re-started.

According to ICE spokesperson Nicole Alberico, Jennifer’s husband has six criminal convictions, including a felony for causing bodily harm while driving under the influence. A search of his online records show the 2007 felony, six misdemeanor convictions for battery, and misdemeanors for driving under the influence and for driving with a revoked license. In 2002, he was subject to a temporary restraining order for domestic abuse.

Because he had a prior removal order, he could be deported at any time, Gillhouse said, but Jennifer was still surprised when he was deported on Oct. 5 after two weeks in detention.

The question of whether an immigrant is deportable is not always clear, said Grant Sovern, an immigration attorney and president of the board at the Community Immigration Law Center in Madison. CILC provides free immigration-related information and referrals at a walk-in clinic every other week.

Although an immigrant may have entered the U.S. without authorization, they might be eligible for relief like asylum, Sovern said.

The immigrants themselves may not know where they fall on that spectrum, Sovern said. But because deportation hearings are civil matters, those facing deportation aren’t entitled to public defenders. Many are left to fend for themselves in front of a judge.

Right now, there are two pro-bono deportation defense lawyers in the area: Aissa Olivarez, hired by CILC in 2017, and Erin Barbato, director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We cannot even begin to represent everybody,” Barbato said.

When ICE came to Madison in September, the lawyers ended up taking two cases each from the 20 Dane County detainees. Olivarez initially gives each case 40 to 80 hours of attention to explore every possible legal avenue.

But Barbato and Olivarez worked on behalf of everyone. They called ICE to see where the detainees had been taken, started intakes to see who could be eligible for relief and worked with other immigration attorneys to find out who could take cases pro-bono or at a low cost, referring families who could afford it to private attorneys.

Dane County detainees who have since been released on bond will wait for their initial hearing in 2019, and may not see a final hearing until 2020 or 2021, Olivarez said. 

In the future, CILC wants to provide a public defender model, offering free representation to all individuals in Dane County facing deportation.

Prior to adopting such a system, only 4 percent of immigrants facing deportation in a New York immigration court without a lawyer had a positive outcome. With free representation, that increased to an estimated 48 percent.

A public defender model in Madison would require about three more attorneys and a couple of paralegals, Sovern said. That will take more funding.

“If we just get people lawyers, they will have their day in court, and the right thing mostly happens,” Sovern said.

ICE Presser 1 (CT)

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de La Frontera, spoke at a press conference at Centro Hispano on Sept. 24, which was attended by about 300 people.

Economic impact

Jennifer and her husband own a own small business (she declined to identify it to protect her identity) that involves manual labor. She suffers from fibromyalgia, bad arthritis, and now no longer has a partner. Her brother is helping out, but it’s tough work on top of taking care of her six kids. She has sent her husband hundreds of dollars while he looks for work in Mexico.

A recent report from New American Economy found that in 2016, foreign-born residents contributed $3.4 billion to Dane County’s economy.

It’s hard to know to what extent ICE activity dented that impact, but Jessica Cavazos, president and CEO of the Latino Chamber of Commerce, wants to quantify the economic repercussions of the arrests.

She said chamber members were “impacted gravely.” About six business owners told her they closed or suffered a loss of productivity, either because employees didn’t show up for work or customers were too afraid to leave their homes.

Cavazos said some restaurants were forced to close on a normally busy Friday. When only half of his employees showed up, one owner had to choose between opening his restaurant or food store. A normally busy baker found himself in a deserted store one morning.

The chamber and a local chapter of League of United Latin American Citizens hosted a special strategy session for local businesses, and CILC invited Ray Feliz and Jairo Hernandez, attorneys who focus on immigration law, to speak there.

Hernandez urged businesses not to close when ICE comes around because it will trigger a “minor recession.”

Cavazos agreed: “You can’t allow it to paralyze a community or paralyze an ecosystem.”

It’s about mitigating risk, Feliz said. People without driver’s licenses should try to carpool to work. If ICE officers show up, check the warrant to make sure the names of individuals and location are correct.

The two said they’ve fielded questions about ICE arrests from hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, law firms and business owners of all different races.

A Madison fast casual restaurant owner, who wanted to remain anonymous to protect his employees, was prepared for ICE almost by accident. He happened to read an article in a trade publication outlining restaurant rights in the event of ICE arrests. He hunted up the article, sent it around to managers and told employees to call him or the assistant manager if ICE showed up.

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The recent arrests sparked fear and anxiety among his workers, he said. His location near the UW-Madison campus once ensured a flood of applications each fall. But the student labor market has “dried up,” he said.

“Honestly, the restaurant community in this city could not function without the Latino community. I rely on them. They're all my best employees,” he said. “A lot of my Latino workers work 40 hours for me and work 40 hours a week for someone else, and they’re paying into Social Security, a system that they’re never going to see any benefits from.”

‘When there is no safety’

Jennifer and all of her kids are in counseling. They’re acting out, fighting and being horrible to each other, Jennifer said. She leaves the storm door to her house open so they can see through the glass. Otherwise they panic whenever someone knocks.

“I don’t want them to be living in fear,” Jennifer said. “My poor son (saying), ‘It’s my fault. I’m the one that opened the door, this is my fault.’”

As Jennifer spoke, that son, 7, was laying on the floor of her living room and pulled a small cushion over himself to hide. He opened the door to ICE officers that morning because he thought it was his mom coming home from her shift at the convenience store.

“No it’s not, it’s not your fault, it’s definitely not your fault,” Jennifer said to him. “You had no idea. They tricked you and that’s not right.”

ICE activity affects mental health in a community. It can feel like “a violator intruding in your home and in your safety,” said Johnathan Martinez, a bilingual child and family therapist at The Rainbow Project, a nonprofit organization serving young children and families affected by trauma. That can apply to those detained, their families and the community at large, especially children.

“Now you have kids that really are having a hard time concentrating in class. You go home and there’s one parent missing. You want to be brave, especially if you're in high school, and I see kids that put on the smile, trying to support mom, but there’s still somebody missing in the house,” Hamdan said.

Studies have shown that man-made disasters may have an even deeper impact on a community than natural disasters, said Celia Huerta, another bilingual therapist at Rainbow. Another study found that after a major immigration raid in Postville, Iowa, in 2008, babies born to Latina mothers had a higher risk of low birth weight.

Huerta worked with a woman having panic attacks after her son and husband were detained; she was too afraid to seek help from Journey Mental Health.

While the families of detainees suffer a particular kind of trauma, there are children who may have heard scary stories at school and the “hundreds of kids that saw their families lock their doors and stay inside,” Bidar said.

Huerta has a client whose child came home terrified and asked, “Do we have papers? Are they going to come and take you away?”

The mother doesn’t have papers. But her kids don’t know that, and she didn’t want to scare them, so she told them she wasn’t in danger.

Just being undocumented can put individuals at risk of developing mental disorders like depression and anxiety, which Huerta partially attributes to the constant stress of being found out. Bidar gave the example of discovering that your driver’s license is expired.

“That gives you anxiety, right? Well, that’s every day (for the undocumented). So what you think is (a high) level of anxiety is a baseline,” she said.

Plus, some immigrants came to the U.S. because of trauma in their home countries, Martinez, the therapist, said. Barbato, the UW lawyer recently visited the border with some students to provide legal assistance to the  women detained there. The woman relayed their histories of violence, rape, torture and persecution.

It was “crushing,” Barbato said. “You saw their tears, you saw them shake.”

Trauma victims believe the world is not safe, said Rainbow executive director Sharyl Kato, and working with trauma victims is about empowering them to change their worldview. That’s hard to do when government agents show up and take control, Martinez said.

“For us it’s like, how do you teach people to feel safe when there is no safety?” Huerta said.

Even legal citizens felt the fear when ICE officers arrived in Madison. Huerta was going to head out for carnitas that weekend, then read a post that officers were spotted on that side of town.

“I started just feeling very, very anxious, thinking that they were just targeting pretty much anyone who looked Latino,” she said. “I don’t want to have to go through that experience where I’m going to be asked for documentation or I'm going to be detained.”

Martinez urged teachers to pay attention to stress signals, like kids of color acting out, and be ready to listen and respond. Kato said helping neighbors feel safe can be as simple as offering a smile. Programs like Rainbow’s “Yo Soy, Yo Soy Unica” build cultural identity and self-esteem.

“That is the inoculation that can take the kind of hammering of being put down so much,” Kato said.

2018-06-30-Imigration 1 (CT)

Hector Brandt, center, was one of hundreds of protesters at a June rally in Madison calling for immigration reform and elimination of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

‘I just hope people don’t stop talking about it’

During the ICE activity, many Madison residents jumped to help, volunteer and donate. The immigration assistance fund grew by $30,000, Menendez Coller said.

“I just hope people don’t stop talking about it,” Menendez Coller said. “I think it caused a lot of panic and trauma in our community, kids that are going to have these vivid memories of this going on, (there are) families that are still separated.”

Issues of importance to the Latino community have been forgotten before. Trump’s ending of DACA made headlines, but the issue has since faded away. Meanwhile, Centro is still trying to figure out where kids can go to school.

“That never died for us, but it was really hurtful when it died in the greater environment,” Menendez Coller said.

And when the greater community — which is, demographically speaking, the white community — only pays attention to the Latino community when it’s in crisis, the result can be a savior complex.

“The last thing we want is for people to think of us as defenseless and we’re people who need to be protected,” she said. “We’re not. We have a ton of assets, a ton of resilience. I think the crisis showed that there’s actually community systems in place. I just don’t want to go at it alone.”

Madison can’t rely on the nonprofit sector alone to meet the needs of its diverse communities, Menendez Coller said. Everyone needs to do their part to understand and address the issues, she said.

Outside of crisis, the Latino community often finds itself mostly alone in legislative advocacy, Bidar said. Allies need to show up to support legislation providing access to driver’s licenses and other issues that “are influencing people’s lives on a daily basis,” she said.

As for Jennifer, she’s working on the family petition again. She will pay $1,500 in filing and attorney fees. She’s grateful for her kids’ school communities, which organized to bring her meals. Her husband video chats with the family four or five times a night. During their calls, the kids show off their growing jigsaw puzzle and her son plays his new viola.

Her husband’s legalization process at one point requires the applicant to leave the country, so in a way, ICE “forced their hand” to continue the process, Gillhouse said. He estimates it will be two to three years before Jennifer’s husband is able to gain a visa to re-enter the country.

Jennifer doesn’t let the kids see her cry; she waits until they’re asleep or she’s in the shower.

“Some days I just cry so bad. I can’t do this, like how am I going to do this? ... It's like you love somebody so much and then they're gone. It's like he died, you know what I mean? It's like he's dead, but he’s still alive,” she said.

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