RESEDA, Calif. – When federal immigration officers visited over three days last October looking for an illegal Salvadoran immigrant, a neighborhood watch kicked into action.
Dozens of immigrants, legal and illegal, phoned one another, warning of a raid.
“I called my sister in the building next door and another sister in this building,” said Maria, who said she is an illegal immigrant from Mexico and has two children who are U.S.-born citizens. She asked that her full name not be used. “They came and knocked on doors, but no one answered.”
Angelita Pascacio, an organizer of Madres Contra Redadas (Mothers Against Raids) who has since moved out of the apartment building, described the surveillance by immigrants as clumsy at first, but effective. “Thanks to our being organized, they didn’t take anyone away,” she said.
As the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency beefs up home-visiting teams seeking illegal immigrants, migrants and advocates are initiating countermeasures to make legal and illegal immigrants aware of tactics.
The grass-roots efforts try to help many immigrants who live in fear and ignorance of the law, but an ulterior goal is to stymie agents’ door-to-door manhunts and thwart “collateral” arrests – illegal immigrants who are accidentally discovered during questioning for someone else who has absconded from a deportation order.
Both sides claim success. While one Mothers Against Raids group in the Los Angeles area boasted its effectiveness, federal officials say their arrests have reduced the population of deportation-fleeing immigrants for the first time since ICE was created in 2003.
“There has been a movement to engage and build capacity in immigrant communities so that they can better protect themselves,” said Peter Schey, president of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, a nonprofit legal foundation for immigrants. “There has certainly been a circling of the wagons.”
While federal officials don’t object to individuals exercising free speech, they expressed reservations about efforts to thwart officers and agents.
“One assumes they have something to hide,” ICE spokeswoman Pat Reilly said.
The immigration agency’s 75 fugitive operations teams arrested 30,408 illegal immigrants in the fiscal year ending last September, officials said.
Almost 40 percent of those arrests were collateral apprehensions, and the remainder were deportation-fleeing immigrants, including criminals, Reilly said. For the first time, the backlog of fugitive immigrants fell last fiscal year, to fewer than 595,000, officials said.