A social media hoax warning of impending immigration raids sent a wave of fear through Hudson Valley’s Latino community last month, highlighting the anxiety felt by many local immigrants since the election of President Donald J. Trump.
According to Marco Ochoa, a Kingston-based landlord who has served as an informal liaison between the city’s Latino community and City Hall, the posts began appearing on Facebook on Wednesday, Feb. 15. The posting warned that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were planning a large-scale action in Kingston and surrounding areas the coming Friday. The post said the raids would take place at Wal-Mart and along the Broadway corridor, home to a Latino supermarket and a number of businesses owned by or catering to the city’s Spanish-speaking population. Ochoa said the mysterious post, and the accompanying fear spread like wildfire across the area.
“I don’t know if it was a Hispanic person who did it, or someone who doesn’t like us,” said Ochoa. “But it made people very afraid.”
By the weekend, the rumor had spread that raids had taken place in the city with ICE agents snatching dozens of suspected illegal immigrants off the streets of Kingston. Mariel Fiori, editor of the local Spanish language magazine La Voz, said similar rumors popped up across the Hudson Valley.
“People were calling and asking, is it true that ICE is doing raids in Dover Plains, in Poughkeepsie, in Beacon?”
In fact, there were no large-scale roundups of suspected illegal immigrants in the Hudson Valley last month. The rumors may have sprung from a routine enforcement action carried out by ICE teams in major urban areas including New York, Chicago and San Francisco which began on Feb. 6 and netted 680 suspects. In New York, the operation swept up 41 suspected illegal aliens. The majority of those arrested were in the five boroughs of New York City and Long Island with just a handful picked up in the Hudson Valley and none in Ulster County. The number of arrests and the profile of those arrested — 38 of 41 picked up in New York had criminal convictions for crimes including rape, assault and drug sales — was similar to actions carried out under the Obama administration.
“Six-hundred eighty in a week is not that unusual,” said Fiori. “It’s just that now there’s this heightened sensitivity.”
That sensitivity, observers say, is rooted in Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric on the campaign trail, where he kicked off his run by characterizing Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, and his tough stance since assuming office in January. The rumors of mass roundups began a few weeks after Trump’s executive order temporarily barring entry into the country by all refugees and residents of seven majority-Muslim nations considered terrorist hotbeds was blocked by the courts.
Last month, meanwhile, new guidelines promulgated by Homeland Security officials in line with Trump’s directives significantly expanded the pool of undocumented immigrants at risk of arrest and deportation. In recent years, ICE has focused deportation efforts on those convicted of serious crimes against public safety. The new directives target a far larger population of undocumented immigrants convicted or just arrested for less serious crimes, like using a stolen Social Security number to get work or driving without a license. The new guidelines also expand a program that allows deportation without a hearing before an immigration judge. “Expedited removal” previously applied only to illegal immigrants caught within 200 miles of the border who have been in the country less than two weeks. Now the program can be used to deport to undocumented immigrants nationwide who have been in the country for as long as two years.
“This new administration has really put a lot of fear into people,” said Jose Villa, a Kingston restaurateur who arranges annual visits by Mexican consular officials to help local residents obtain identification and passports. “It’s very upsetting to them.”
‘You can feel the fear’
In the days after the Internet hoax began, many undocumented residents stayed off the streets and away from public places. Some kept their kids out of school, others didn’t show up for work or had friends and neighbors do their shopping and other errands for them for fear of being caught on the street. Ochoa said that he knew of at least one family that canceled a daughter’s Quinceañera — the 15th birthday celebration considered a milestone for girls in many Latino cultures — for fear that such a large gathering would attract the attention of immigration authorities.
“You can feel the fear,” said Ochoa. “People are afraid their kids will go to school one day and never see them again, they’re afraid they’ll go to work in the morning and not be able to get home at night.”
The response to the fear takes a variety of forms from organizing for change to preparing for the worst. Fiori said she had spent time on social media at the height of the panic, chiding people for sharing unconfirmed reports and circulating a guide on how to circulate properly sourced accounts of actual ICE activity. Villa says that he expects more people to turn out in June when he hosts officials from the Mexican consulate. Villa said undocumented residents were seeking Mexican ID cards, passports and other documents to smooth the way home in the event they are deported. Others, he said, were seeking trusted friends and family members with legal status to care for their U.S.-born children if they are deported.
Ochoa, who holds a green card and has been in the U.S. for 27 years, helped push for the recent passage of a non-binding Common Council resolution declaring Kingston a “sanctuary city” for immigrants. The controversial resolution endorsed a long-standing police department policy that directs officers to not inquire about residents’ immigration status during routine interactions. Ochoa said he also wanted to share his and others’ stories to educate local residents about the contributions of Latino immigrants to the local economy and the lengthy and expensive process of obtaining legal status.
“We’re already here, we work, pay taxes, send our kids to school,” said Ochoa. “There are one or two bad people here and we want them gone too. But because of that we are all suffering.”