It’s an increasingly common sight on social media. Warnings appear about a law enforcement sweep, photos are posted of the enforcers’ unmarked vehicles. More photos show men in bulletproof vests peering into windows.
For most Kingstonians, the posts don’t really mean much as the agents aren’t looking for them. But for many in the city’s growing immigrant community, warnings of raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement are a deadly serious matter. While it’s unclear whether ICE is actually increasing its efforts to detain and deport undocumented residents, harsh rhetoric and promises of even harsher treatment by President Donald J. Trump have prompted new efforts by grassroots groups and local governments to thwart federal immigration enforcement.
“ICE has always been in and out of Kingston but in the past it was mostly outside of probation offices, courts, government offices,” said Diana Lopez, a community organizer for immigration advocacy group Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson. “But now it’s to the point where they’re knocking on doors. It’s terrifying.”
Earlier this month, ICE agents visited several locations in Midtown Kingston, apparently seeking out individuals wanted for deportation. (A spokeswoman for New York’s ICE office did not return an email and several calls seeking comment). It’s unclear if the enforcement action was part of a nationwide crackdown targeting some 2000 undocumented immigrants subject to removal orders, mostly based on criminal convictions. Trump’s recent tweets about the threatened large-scale enforcement action sent a wave of fear through local immigrant communities, in part because of ICE’s policy of “collateral apprehension.” This allows agents to detain any undocumented immigrants they come across in the course of their duties, whether or not they are on the target list. Lopez said that fear was palpable in Midtown Kingston. “You look at Broadway and normally there’s a lot of people there,” said Lopez of the day of the ICE action. “But it was a ghost town.”
Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson offers a range of services for undocumented immigrants facing stepped-up enforcement by ICE. Lopez said the group fields phone calls from area residents seeking information about ICE activity, arranges rides for people who are worried about walking to work and helps set up guardianship arrangements for the American-born children of people threatened with deportation. The group also helps educate immigrants about their rights when dealing with ICE officials. (Courts have long held that undocumented immigrants have the same due process rights as other Americans).
Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson has also worked to prevent the kind of mass panic that can occur when unfounded rumors of ICE activity circulate on social media. The group encourages reports of ICE presence, but only if verified by a reliable first-hand source.
Recently, the group’s efforts have been complicated by a flood of new arrivals fleeing near total economic and social collapse in Guatemala. The newcomers, who, Lopez said, have been arriving in Kingston in increasing numbers over the past year, come from the central highlands of the country and speak K’iche’. The language, which derives from ancient Mayan, is divided into 20 different dialects, not all of which are mutually intelligible.
“We’re trying but it has been very difficult because many of them don’t speak Spanish or English,” said Lopez of efforts to assist the K’iche’ speakers. “And there’s just not a lot of people we know who can serve as interpreters.”
While Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson offers advocacy services for the undocumented, the Immigrant Defense Network of Ulster County takes a more direct approach. The group, organized in 2017, has developed a network of volunteers and a protocol to respond whenever ICE seeks to detain a person. Woodstock resident Nic Abramson, co-leader of the group, said the effort relies on a network of 54 volunteers linked via a group text. Whenever the network is advised of ICE activity at a specific location, teams are dispatched there in an effort to lawfully prevent the detention of the targeted person.
“Our goal is to be there as witnesses both to support the family involved and to make sure that their rights are respected and that it is a legal ICE encounter,” said Abramson.
The network’s response protocol includes assessing the situation and making contact with the family by getting to their front door, if possible, or by phone if not. The responders will advise family members not to open the door or talk to ICE agents unless they have a warrant signed by a judge. (Many ICE actions are carried out using administrative warrants that critics argue do not have the force of law). Other team members will try to speak to ICE agents to determine the circumstances of the enforcement action and identify any potential legal issues involved. The response team also includes a videographer and one of two attorneys with expertise in immigration matters who have signed on to the effort.
In the event the targeted person is taken into custody, the network will help family members left behind, for example, by connecting children with pre-arranged guardians. Abramson said the group was trained to operate within the bounds of the law and not to obstruct ICE agents’ lawful activity.
“We don’t interfere with ICE,” said Abramson. “We are not, at this point, putting our people at risk.”
Local governments’ resistance
Along with nonprofit groups, local governments have signed on to efforts to protect residents threatened by ICE actions. In 2017, Kingston officially adopted a policy barring city employees, including police from providing information or otherwise assisting ICE. Last month, following revelations of squalid conditions at children’s detention facilities maintained by the department of Customs and Border Protection and escalating threats from Trump of a large scale sweep by ICE, County Executive Pat Ryan signed an executive order barring county employees from collecting information about residents’ immigration status or otherwise assisting immigration authorities.
Proponents of the non-cooperation policies argue that local law enforcement has no duty to assist federal officials in enforcing laws against actions, like overstaying a visa, that are not crimes under New York penal law. Others, including Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa, say that ICE’s reliance on administrative warrants, as opposed to court orders, casts doubt on the constitutionality of cooperation by local cops. (Both the city and county non-cooperation policies contain exceptions when ICE agents provide a warrant or court order signed by a judge.)
“These orders are about due process and protecting the rights of people who are arrested or detained. Everybody has the right to go before a judge and jury,” said Figueroa in a statement regarding the executive order. “I am a big supporter of the Constitution, and I represent the people of this county, not the interests of our federal immigration officials.”
Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti said city police had adopted a hands-off attitude about immigration for as long as he had been in law enforcement. ICE agents, he said, operate completely independently of local law enforcement and do not let local cops know when they plan to be in town. City police, meanwhile, will take no action to either help or hinder ICE. Tinti said officers on patrol who spot ICE activity are expected to report it, simply to avoid potentially hazardous situations when fellow officers come across armed agents in plainclothes.
“Our policy has always been that we do our local law enforcement stuff and the government does what they do,” Tinti said.
When ICE showed up in Kingston earlier this month, however, the city went beyond non-cooperation and took steps to warn residents about their presence. The warning, which was accompanied by information advising people of their rights, was posted to the city’s official social media platforms once immigration advocates confirmed ICE was in fact operating in Kingston.
Mayor Steve Noble personally authorized the post. Noble said the city would do everything legally possible to protect the rights of Kingston residents, regardless of immigration status.
“It’s difficult when we have a federal law enforcement agency that still has the power to come into our community and harass citizens who live here,” said Noble. “They know they’re not welcome, but I don’t think there’s any way we can legally keep them out.”
What is ICE actually up to?
Despite the declarations of non-cooperation and the rise of advocacy groups like Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, it’s unclear whether ICE is actually increasing its activity. Nationwide, the number of undocumented immigrants deported ticked up to 256,000 last year compared to 235,000 in 2015. But those numbers remain far below the record of 409,000 deportations in 2012 as then-President Obama initiated a crackdown in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to win Republican support for an immigration reform bill.
In a recent article in The New York Times, current and former officials in the Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE, described Trump’s growing frustration with the agency’s inability to carry out the mass roundups and deportation on undocumented immigrants that he promised in his 2016 campaign.
That inability is largely a function of resources — ICE and immigration courts simply lack the capacity to detain and process more than a tiny fraction of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
“I would say it’s more of a perceived threat,” said Abramson. “We are certainly attuned to changes in policy, but we haven’t seen a huge increase in ICE activity in Ulster County.”