Starting in January, a buzz about a supposed upsurge in federal immigration raids kept undocumented immigrants away from work, classes, and errands in Providence, for fear that they would be detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Even earlier this month, Conchita Cruz, who teaches and coordinates ESOL classes for immigrants in Olneyville through Brown University’s Swearer Center, says that attendance remained at about 25 percent of the usual level.
Concerned community members have since come to a “general consensus” that “the rumors got way out of control,” according to Olivia Geiger, ESOL program coordinator at English for Action (EFA). Geiger says EFA hosted “a number of meetings” to share information about “what we knew,” but that “no one directly knew somebody who had been picked up . . . it was always two steps removed.”
Miguel Sanchez-Hartwein, executive director for the Center for Hispanic Policy and Advocacy (CHISPA), says that those two steps stemmed from the fear of retaliation. When CHISPA began receiving calls in December, it asked people to come forward. While some did, Sanchez-Hartwein says, they have been unwilling to document the arrests. He explained that while some immigrants “may have residency, their family members may not be there with papers,” and that people are also “very aware that even with residency, status can be withdrawn at any time.”
Immigrant rights organizations, unions, elected officials, and faith leaders responded by organizing a January 19 rally, turning out a large crowd of Providence residents that filled Cathedral Square to express their concerns. ICE then denied conducting raids, both in a letter last month in El Latino Expreso, and in a February 9 meeting at Senator Jack Reed’s office. According to the meeting notes, David Riccio, ICE’s resident agent-in-charge in Providence, told attendees, “It is not ICE’s policy to stand on the street corner, or enter a restaurant or supermarket and ask people for their papers . . . this would be a waste of time.” Instead, Riccio said, ICE looks for “specific people” for whom it has warrants for arrest. ICE currently classifies 2000 Rhode Island residents, undocumented immigrants who have committed a crime, as “ICE fugitives.”
Sanchez-Hartwein points out that ICE has made arrests in recent months, as confirmed by Riccio at the meeting, and that when agents come across another individual or individuals who are wanted and might not be here illegally, “they will not turn a blind eye.”
Although suspicions about broader raids appeared unfounded, immigrants and their allies remain concerned about other elements of what they see as a growing anti-immigrant climate. The topics discussed at a February 28 meeting in Olneyville included Governor Carcieri’s proposed RiteCare cuts, for example, and a February 23 meeting in Pawtucket hosted by the anti-immigrant group Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Geiger says what’s most significant about the recent talk of raids is that it caused “a huge panic” that Rhode Island is becoming a place where “anyone who looks like an immigrant, is brown-skinned, is going to be stopped by the police or ICE and asked for their papers.” The immigration system “needs to be overhauled,” she says, pointing to the hypocritical nature of an approach in which “you can have a job and be contributing to your community and the economy, and not be allowed to drive or walk around without fear of getting stopped.”