Mai Thao Yang was still asleep when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers came to her house and arrested her brother early in the morning on Friday, Sept. 21. Her mother, Ka Lor, was confused; her son had “served his time,” she said, she didn’t understand why he had to be detained.
“They came to our house, they wouldn’t let me say anything, they told me to be silent,” she said. “I don’t know why I didn’t reach my hand out to pat (my son) or to touch him.”
The family is Hmong, and Lor’s testimony highlighted the theme of a panel discussion held at the Universit of Wisconsin-Madison on Tuesday: ICE activity affects more than just Latinos.
“This is not just a Latino immigrant issue,” said panel moderator Armando Ibarra, director of the Chican@/Latin@ Studies Program at UW-Madison.
“This movement going forward, has to be broader than just Latino and Southeast Asian, it has to be all of us," said Karen Menendez Coller, executive director at Centro Hispano of Dane County, who added: "the UW-Madison system isn’t really there to support our community in the way that it needs to be."
Panelists included Coller; Aissa Olivarez, an attorney at the Community Immigration Law Center; Mario Garcia Sierra, with Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights organization; and Kazbuag Vaj, co-executive director of Freedom Inc.
The event, titled “Days of Terror, Days of Hope,” began with the testimonies of two families affected by the recent ICE activity.
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. There was fear and panic in the city’s immigrant communities. At least a few businesses closed their doors and a significant number of Latino children stayed home from school.
The September ICE activity in Madison brought up painful memories for Joanna Rojas, a mother of two whose own father was detained in 2010 in Milwaukee.
“It’s like the whole story will repeat again,” she thought.
She came home to find her boyfriend anxious and pacing. ICE had been to his parents’ house. His cousin had taken a video of officers.
“In that moment, my life stopped,” she said. “I started calling everybody and seeing what was going on and sure enough, it was ICE. The terrorists were in town … We had the kids at home, it was just scary, like what do we do? I have to go to work, you have to go to work.”
After the testimonies, the four panelists took the stage and expanded on the fear they witnessed in the community during the ICE actions.
“There was a significant amount of terror that took place. Schools were scrambling trying to figure out a way for supporting the community. People weren’t wanting to leave their homes, people didn’t want to go to the grocery store,” Coller said.
The four-day ICE enforcement had long-lasting effects on multiple communities, panelists said. They also addressed the compounding issues communities of color face.
Fear was not limited to the undocumented; Vaj talked about numerous calls from individuals with documentation asking if they would be picked up by ICE.
Vaj said it was important to remember that ICE raids happen in Southeast Asian communities all over the U.S., which can mean the targeted populations are refugees, like Cambodian survivors of genocide. Hmong refugees from Laos may hang in suspense after being detained, because Laos has not cooperated with the U.S. to accept Laos nationals with a deportation order.
“You’re taking them not because you can deport them, you’re taking them to terrorize a community,” Vaj said.
Olivarez said communities of color are over-policed, and when they come into contact with ICE often “receive a double punishment,” and are detained for crimes they have already served time for. Garcia Sierra said not only the immigration system, but justice system in the U.S. is broken.
“When you combine those two broken systems for the purpose of your own political agenda, there are families, kids and economies that get impacted,” Garcia Sierra said.
ICE activity can quickly erode trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement, Garcia Sierra said, especially when ICE identify themselves as “police” at the door. Vaj said this was an opportunity to examine police in schools, a topic Freedom Inc. has vigorously spoken against.
“We see how you are so scared of ICE, this is probably how black students are really afraid of the police,” she said. “It was a great opportunity for us to connect that.”
The September ICE activity acted as a “severe wake up call,” Coller said, and the panelists discussed the “days of hope” and solutions ahead.
Rojas said her saving grace in those stressful September days was “definitely feeling the support from the community.”
“I think it brought the systems to the table, saying some changes need to happen,” Coller said. “I think the silver lining to this work is that we’re closer together.”
At one point, a restaurant was shut down for fear of ICE, and workers without documentation were inside, Vaj said. So community advocates sent a white person — much less likely to be questioned by officers — to pick up the undocumented workers. It was an example of strategically helping each other out, she said.
Communities of color can learn from each other, Vaj said, pointing out that the Southeast Asian community has been doing work on the front lines of advocacy against deportation for 15 years, discussing deportation remedies and holding conversations with United Nations representatives.
Asked for action steps, Coller highlighted two major priorities: granting in-state tuition for undocumented students and driver’s licenses for everyone in the state, regardless of immigration status. Those two issues will not be possible without action across the community, Garcia Sierra said, urging students to use their voice within the university.
“You can look at it from any academic lens, or any discipline you want, and you have enough evidence to arrive at the conclusion that the future of this state is tied to the future of the Latino and immigrant community,” Garcia Sierra said.
Vaj called ICE activity “opportunity for us to come together and really stand for each other.”
“It is a fight it is a human rights violation to deport anybody. This is a fight. Whatever you can do, you do,” Vaj said.