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Deportations, Rumors Stir Fear Among Immigrants

Jan 17, 2016
Originally published on January 19, 2016 10:04 am

Late last year, it was revealed that the Department of Homeland Security was going to step up pursuit of people with deportation orders. Arrests took place the first weekend of January; DHS has confirmed that 121 people were detained in those operations.

That may not sound like much compared to the estimated more than 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally. But the actions sent a chill through the immigrant community's spine and started the rumor mill churning.

One of those communities is Langley Park, Md., a hub for Central American immigrants. That's where I met up with Giovanni, at the parking lot of a fast food joint. There, he shows me pictures of his two sons, both U.S. citizens.

He says there's a conversation he's been having more frequently with his sister — a conversation about what he calls "Plan B."

"I have a little money saved," he's told her. "The day I'm no longer here or something happens to me, I want you to give it to them."

Giovanni — who also goes by "Chocolate," a nickname he got back in Honduras — jokes that if he gets caught by immigration authorities, he might try to pass for African-American. He worries a lot more about getting picked up than he used to. He says he's constantly keeping his ear to the ground.

It started the weekend of Jan. 2, when DHS stepped up enforcement nationwide. Giovanni's phone started blowing up with calls from worried friends.

"'Don't come to Langley Park,'" he says they warned him. "'They're stopping people. They just have to see you looking Hispanic, and they'll catch you and send you back.'"

DHS declined to be interviewed by NPR. In official statements, the agency says most of the arrests took place in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina. There haven't been any confirmed arrests in Maryland. Still, a blanket of anxiety has fallen over this community.

"Obviously there is fear all over," says George Escobar, one of the leaders at CASA of Maryland, an immigrant advocacy organization.

On Jan. 1, the organization set up a hotline to field people's concerns about immigration enforcement. He says CASA received as many as 150 calls a day at first. Many of those callers claimed they saw DHS officers in the area, and "immigration officials knocking on people's doors, entering into their buildings, immigration vehicles parked in very public spaces in the middle of the day."

On the local Spanish language radio station, El Zol, host Pedro Biaggi asks what's on everyone's mind: "If the cops suspect someone with a deportation order is in the house, they can just come in, right?"

"No," responds a CASA executive who is a guest on the program. In this country, he explains, authorities need a warrant.

Giovanni has heard all this. He knows he is not a high priority for DHS deportations. DHS is looking for recent arrivals, criminals and people with deportation orders. Giovanni doesn't fall into any of those categories.

"It's still scary," he says. "Because I've heard of people getting picked up in Langley Park and taken. I've never seen an immigration police car or an immigration official. I've seen it on TV, but never live. I haven't had the pleasure."

The deportations shouldn't be surprising, said DHS secretary Jeh Johnson.

"I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed," he said. But those "priorities" will focus on "convicted criminals and threats to public safety."

For many people like Giovanni, even if he is a low priority, the fear is still real.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to switch gears to a sensitive and emotional issue here in the U.S., and that is the treatment of undocumented immigrants. Late last year, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed reports that it was going to step up efforts to detain and remove people with deportation orders. The arrests began in January and started the rumor mill churning. And now some people fear that the arrests have set off some unintended consequences. We have the first of two reports on this from NPR Code Switch team. Jasmine Garsd reports from Langley Park, Md., which is a hub for Central American immigrants.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: I meet up with Giovanni in his car at the parking lot of a fast-food joint. Outside, it's pouring rain. He shows me pictures of his two sons, both U.S. citizens. He says he's been talking more with his sister about what he calls plan B for him and his children.

GIOVANNI: (Through interpreter) I have a little money saved. The day I'm no longer here or something happens to me, I want you to give it to them.

GARSD: These days, he worries a lot more about being sent back to Honduras, and he's keeping his ear to the ground. This all started on the first week of January when DHS stepped up its enforcement nationwide. Giovanni's phone started blowing up with calls from worried friends.

GIOVANNI: (Through interpreter) Don't come to Langley Park. They're stopping people. If they even see you have a Hispanic face, they'll catch you and send you back. Well, OK then, I said. I'm staying home.

GARSD: DHS declined to be interviewed by NPR. But in official statements, the agency says most of the arrests have taken place in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina. There are no official reports of arrests in Maryland. Still, a blanket of anxiety has fallen over this community.

GEORGE ESCOBAR: Obviously, there is fear all over. But we do our best to try to filter through the information people give us.

GARSD: George Escobar is one of the leaders at CASA in Maryland, an immigrant advocacy organization. At the start of the year, they set up a hotline to field people's concerns about immigration enforcement. At first, Escobar says, they got as many as 150 calls a day, many from people who claim they were seeing immigration officers in the area.

ESCOBAR: Immigration officials knocking on people's doors, entering into their apartments, immigration vehicles being parked in very public spaces in the middle of the day.

GARSD: On the local Spanish-language radio, 107.9 El Zol, host Pedro Biaggi asked what's on everyone's mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PEDRO BIAGGI: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "If the cops suspect someone with a deportation order is in the house, they can just come in."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "No," says a CASA executive who is a guest on the program. "In this country," he explains, "they need a warrant." Giovanni has heard all of this, and he also knows he does not fall into DHS' priority list. They're looking for recent arrivals, criminals and people with deportation orders. He doesn't fall into any of those categories.

GIOVANNI: (Through interpreter) It's still scary because I've heard of people getting picked up in Langley Park. I've never seen an immigration police car or an immigration official. I've seen it on TV but never live. I haven't had the pleasure.

GARSD: For many people like Giovanni, it doesn't matter whether the rumors are true. The fear is real. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Langley Park, Md. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.