Investigating immigration raids, real and imagined
Karla Gonzalez received a phone call from a friend who was selling roses on a street corner in downtown Merced, a town of 82,000 in California’s Central Valley. “I heard that ICE is here at the FoodMaxx,” the friend told her. Gonzalez, who is 31, was home on a Sunday afternoon eating breakfast with her husband and their 9-year-old son. “I have to go,” she told them. She hopped into her 2008 Acura and headed downtown, armed with a stack of red “Know Your Rights” cards from the ACLU and pen and paper.
Since the November election, Gonzalez has become an immigration volunteer. The first time she received a call about a raid was just before Thanksgiving. Without any preparation, she raced to the scene and spoke to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, who told her they were detaining an individual but not conducting a large-scale raid. By February, so many calls were coming in that Gonzalez, who was pursuing her B.A. in social work, put her school plans on hold. A longtime volunteer in her community, Gonzalez is gregarious and approachable, the kind of person whom friends, friends of friends, neighbors, her husband’s coworkers, and parents from her son’s elementary school contact if they need advice or help—or, these days, if they are frightened that ICE is in town. They might have seen an ICE officer or an ICE van, but more likely, as with the woman who was selling roses, they’ve heard a rumor via text or Facebook.
Gonzalez came to the United States from Mexicali, Mexico, on a tourist visa when she was 12. Her mother, a farmworker, had arrived a few years earlier. Gonzalez overstayed the visa but qualified for a green card when she was 18, and became a citizen at 27. Having spent much of her adolescence without papers, she understands firsthand the current raid panic. There’s also another reason. “I’m scared they’re going to come take my husband away,” she told me. Her husband, a construction worker, is undocumented — as are the majority of farmworkers in the Central Valley.
Immigration arrests have increased dramatically since President Trump took office, and within undocumented communities paranoia about ICE is palpable. In February, a rumor spread that agents were conducting raids in Oakland and nearby Richmond. Both proved false. Soon after, messages circulated on social media that raids were taking place in San Jose, Fresno, and New York. None of them were true. So volunteers like Gonzalez have become fact-checkers of sorts — a way for those who fear detection and deportation to find out which rumors to pay attention to and which to ignore. She estimates that she receives about 20 calls a week.
When Gonzalez reached downtown Merced, with its chain stores and old-time facades, she turned right onto West Olive and passed the FoodMaxx where ICE was said to have been. A few blocks away, a dozen or so men sat outside on the curb by a taco truck, eating breakfast and waiting for their clothes to dry at the laundromat across the street.
“Have you seen any ICE officers around here?” Gonzalez asked them. They shook their heads.
Her phone rang: someone else frantic about the same report. “I’m not seeing anything,” she said, “but I’ll keep looking.” Gonzalez put her car back into gear. “Have you seen any officers?” she asked a young family at a park. They’d been playing for over an hour and hadn’t noticed a thing. She pulled into a corner store and asked the owner behind the counter. He hadn’t spotted ICE, either.
Recently, a few friends have started helping Gonzalez, and through church groups she has networked with others in the valley. They sought legal advice from the ACLU, and among themselves they’ve discussed how best to respond to calls and how to soothe people on the other end of the line. A consortium of immigrant-aid organizations — which includes the ACLU, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, faith groups, and grassroots organizations — has begun to formalize the work Gonzalez and others are doing by recruiting and training dozens of volunteers and connecting them. “We could use a hundred of me,” Gonzalez says.
After circling downtown a few more times, Gonzalez found her friend and handed out red cards to the guys on the street still waiting for their laundry. “It’s often just rumors,” she says. “You just never know.”