Immigrants in the shadows in Austin: ‘Know your rights’ and plan for someone to care for your children

·National Correspondent
Protesters take part in a No Ban, No Wall rally to support the rights of immigrants and oppose a border wall and support sanctuary cities at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Feb. 28. (Photo: Eric Gay/AP)
Protesters take part in a No Ban, No Wall rally to support the rights of immigrants and oppose a border wall and support sanctuary cities at the Texas State Capitol in Austin on Feb. 28. (Photo: Eric Gay/AP)

AUSTIN, Tex. — Many waited until it was almost dark to walk through the door, and even then, they carefully looked up and down the block to make sure the coast was clear, warily exiting their cars just as the sun went down.

Up the street, the sound of clanking bottles and laughter rang out from bars already jammed with people on this unseasonably warm Friday night. But here, inside this small library auditorium not far from the stately pink granite of the Texas Capitol building, the mood was decidedly more grim as the roughly 75 men and women, young and old, all of Hispanic descent, slowly took their seats, anxiety etched on their faces.

As they waited for the program to begin, the attendees flipped through a 20-page pamphlet passed out by volunteers. “Conozca Sus Derechos,” the cover read. “Know Your Rights.”

Sponsored by a coalition including the Austin teachers union and local immigrant rights groups, volunteer-led “Know Your Rights” meetings like this had been happening for months, aimed at undocumented immigrants and those here on temporary visas, amid concerns about an immigration crackdown promised by then-candidate and now President Trump.

But this meeting was different. Days earlier, in a national sweep that seemed to target so-called sanctuary cities, including Los Angeles and New York, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers had descended on Austin, arresting 51 people in private homes, grocery store parking lots and what witnesses described as checkpoints near schools in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods in the region.\

The arrests had taken by surprise not just the community, but also city officials, including Austin interim Police Chief Brian Manley, who complained that his department had not been given a courtesy heads-up about the operation by ICE officials, even though the agency, while not required to, had usually done so in the past. This time, Manley said, he and other officers had learned about the ICE activity through 911 calls from concerned citizens and media reports. “As the Austin Police chief, I want to know what’s going on in my community,” he said.

Amateur footage of the ICE arrests around Austin had quickly gone viral on social media, including Twitter, where users shared not just video and photos of what they were seeing but also unconfirmed stories of immigration agents tailing school buses and staking out bus stops in search of undocumented parents. Others reported seeing ICE agents positioned at construction sites and sitting in unmarked vehicles near city parks, taco stands and Mexican stores in North Austin, where many of the arrests occurred.

A sign advertising a “Know Your Rights” forum for immigrants at a local library in Austin on Feb. 17. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)
A sign advertising a “Know Your Rights” forum for immigrants at a local library in Austin on Feb. 17. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

In a statement, ICE strongly denied reports of random sweeps and described its operation as “routine.” But the arrests sparked anger and fear in Austin, a city that has been historically welcoming to immigrants but now finds itself on the front lines of Trump’s effort to fulfill his campaign pledge to deport those in the country illegally.

Many here, including those who did not vote for Trump, do not dispute the president’s call to deport those he frequently refers to as “the bad guys,” criminals who have been convicted of serious crimes. “We’re getting the bad ones out, the bad people, gang people, drug lords, in some cases murderers,” Trump said on “Fox and Friends” on Tuesday, echoing a pledge he had made repeatedly on the campaign trail.

But Trump’s policies have gone beyond just the “bad hombres,” as he once referred to illegal immigrants with criminal records. An executive order signed by the president last month directs the deportation of any illegal immigrant who has been charged with a crime — whether or not he or she was actually convicted. It also targets those who have falsified any document, a rule that many believe would apply to nearly all of the estimated 11 million in the country illegally.

While the White House says it is merely directing immigration officials to follow laws already on the books, that change in strategy is believed to be behind the more aggressive targeting of immigrants in places like Austin, where until recently, immigration arrests had averaged one or two every few days, at most, before the recent sweep.

But in a potentially significant shift in policy, Trump told network news anchors during a private lunch Tuesday that he would be open to an immigration overhaul that would grant legal status to potentially millions of undocumented immigrants who have not committed serious crimes. Yet that policy went unmentioned in Trump’s speech before Congress a few hours later, where he proposed what he described as a “merit-based immigration system.” Though he offered few details on how the policy would work, Trump suggested one of the criteria would be that immigrants provide proof that they can financially sustain themselves in the U.S. without relying on public assistance.

In Austin, where people are watching Trump’s policy closely, most of the immigrants detained in the recent sweeps hardly fit the description of the “bad ones” that the president has said he wants to target.

According to federal immigration documents obtained by the Austin American-Statesman, just 23 of the 51 people picked up in Operation Cross Check, as ICE referred to the sweeps, had criminal convictions. Of them, nine had been convicted of drunk driving, two of assault and two of sexual offenses involving children. The remaining 10 included individuals who had been convicted on charges including marijuana possession, obstructing police or drug trafficking, according to the Statesman.

Protesters march in the streets outside the Texas Capitol on “A Day Without Immigrants,” Feb. 16. (Photo: Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images)
Protesters march in the streets outside the Texas Capitol on “A Day Without Immigrants,” Feb. 16. (Photo: Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images)

But 28 of those arrested — roughly 55 percent — had no criminal record and were simply detained for being in the country illegally. According to the Statesman, the percentage of “non-criminal” immigrants, as ICE refers to them internally, arrested in the Austin region was higher than in any other city targeted in Operation Cross Check, including Atlanta (where 34 percent of those detained had no criminal convictions), Chicago (30 percent), Los Angeles (6 percent) and New York (5 percent).

It’s not clear why there were more arrests of non-criminals in Austin than in other cities. ICE has declined to comment on specific cases or even to confirm who exactly is in custody. But in one case that has gained publicity, Miguel Angel Torres, an undocumented immigrant who had no criminal convictions and had been in the country for 14 years, was arrested after what his lawyer said was a case of mistaken identity. His wife, Irma Perez, told reporters that ICE agents had pulled her husband over after he dropped their three daughters off at school, inquiring if he was her brother, who had previously been deported. Though he told officers that they were mistaken, Torres, who worked as a cook at an Austin restaurant and was about to open his own food truck, was detained anyway and remains in custody, likely to be deported.

Perez, who is also undocumented, has since fled her home with her daughters, who are U.S. citizens. She worries that she might be arrested next, potentially leaving her kids without a parent. And she’s not the only one. Throughout North Austin, many undocumented residents have abruptly packed up and left, fearful that they might be targeted next by ICE. And others are considering leaving too.

In a neighborhood just off Rundberg Street, where witnesses say many were detained, a woman stood in her front yard on the weekend after the arrests, surrounded by piles of clothes and other belongings that were so disorganized, it looked as though she were being evicted.

At first wary of speaking to a reporter, the woman, who declined to be identified by name, explained that she was holding a last-minute garage sale, selling what she could to make extra money in case she and her family had to leave. Eight years ago, she had crossed the border illegally from Mexico, seeking to escape drug and gang violence. Though she hadn’t applied for citizenship out of fear that she would be deported, she and her husband, who is also undocumented, both have jobs and were quietly pursuing their version of the American dream, she said.

They rented a home, owned a car and had never broken the law, save for their arrival across the border. But since the ICE arrests, she lived in constant fear that agents would show up at her door and take it all away. As she spoke, her two little girls, ages 4 and 6, peeked through her legs. Both were born in Austin, her adopted hometown and the place where she thought she would stay forever. Now, the woman sadly declared, “I don’t feel safe.”

In the two weeks since the arrests, usually vibrant parts of Austin have gone quiet. In spite of the unusually warm weather, many parks around North Austin were eerily empty on a recent Saturday. A typically packed shopping center on Lamar Boulevard, where witnesses filmed a man being detained by ICE outside the H-E-B grocery store, was only half full. On an 80-degree day when people might be out in their front yards or taking walks, many seemed to be inside, if they were home at all.

Texas Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, center, and Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, right, join clergy and other supporters at a prayer rally for immigrants on the steps of the Texas Capitol on Feb. 28. Faith leaders and activists gathered to pray that a love of neighbor would guide and shape Texas policies about sanctuary cities. (Photo: Eric Gay/AP)
Texas Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, center, and Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, right, join clergy and other supporters at a prayer rally for immigrants on the steps of the Texas Capitol on Feb. 28. Faith leaders and activists gathered to pray that a love of neighbor would guide and shape Texas policies about sanctuary cities. (Photo: Eric Gay/AP)

For two straight Sundays, the pews at Spanish-speaking churches in town had been mostly empty, including one where barely half of the choir showed up. One pastor, who declined to be quoted by name out of fear that his church might be targeted, said that some congregants had told him they were too scared to come. Greg Casar, an Austin City Council member and son of Mexican immigrants whose district includes many of the heavily immigrant neighborhoods in North Austin, said he could not recall a time when people were more scared.

“There is legitimate fear being felt in the community, a legitimate fear and belief that these immigration sweeps were not about public safety but scoring political points,” Casar said. “We are talking about politically motivated deportations, where they say they are going after criminals but what they are doing is separating families and destroying lives. … That’s not very Texan or American.”

In the two weeks since the raids, Austin officials have reported empty desks at local schools, as undocumented parents have kept their children out of class amid fear that they could be detained. Last week, after pressure from parents and teachers, the Austin Independent School District board took up the issue, unanimously approving a resolution that cited a 1982 Supreme Court ruling stating, “All students are entitled to a public education regardless of their immigration status or the status of their parents,” and vowing to be a safe haven for all kids, undocumented or not.

Before the vote, Paul Saldaña, one of the trustees, spoke emotionally of a student he’d heard about who served as the designated lookout for her family each morning before school, keeping an eye out the window for immigration agents while her relatives ate breakfast. “No child in our community should have to endure that fear and anxiety,” he said.

The board’s move appeared to give more latitude to teachers who had been pressing administrators on what guidance, if any, they could give to students or parents who approached them with questions about their immigration rights.

In recent weeks, hundreds of teachers in the district had attended “Know Your Rights” forums. But at some schools, principals had scolded teachers who handed out fliers detailing immigrant rights, including one titled, “What to do if ICE comes to your door.” A letter from the district’s general counsel warned that such activity could cross the line into partisanship, but teachers argued that it was their moral duty to students to provide such counsel, especially in a district where several thousand kids are believed to be either undocumented or the children of undocumented parents.

At the “Know Your Rights” forum in East Austin on a recent Friday, the talk was led by a group of young college students from the University of Texas who volunteer at a legal aid clinic for immigrants. They kicked off the forum by asking how long those in the room had been in the country. While a few indicated that they had been in the U.S. for less than five years, a majority reported that they had come at least 15 years ago, and a few people had been here more than 20 years.

“Wow,” one of the volunteers replied.

For more than an hour, with the aid of a PowerPoint slideshow, the group offered explicit instructions on what to do if approached by ICE agents. At home, “don’t answer the door.” On the street, “DON’T RUN.” But the volunteers spent most of their time answering questions from audience members who were clearly rattled by what had happened in their town. Some spoke of their paranoia about being followed. Many owned homes and asked what would happen to their property if they were detained. Others worried about the fate of their kids if they were arrested. They had no other family here. What would happen to them?

The volunteers pointed the group to the last pages of the thick pamphlet, which advised undocumented immigrants to have detailed written plans in case of an “immigration emergency.” There were places to list friends and family members they could contact, and sections titled “Plan for our car” and “Plan for our housing,” in which to enter information on loan companies and monthly payments and “instructions” for what to do.

But the biggest emotional reaction came when volunteers came to a section suggesting that parents list the names of their kids, along with the kids’ medical histories and even their favorite toys. “In case that we are not here and available to care for our children, it is our desire that our children be cared for by (fill in the blank),” one entry read, causing one mother who was there with her young son to visibly tear up.

Approached afterward, the woman shook her head at an inquiry from a reporter. “Too scary,” she said. Clutching her son’s hand tightly, she headed out the door into the dark night, rushing to her car.

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