US: Undocumented immigrants, advocates prepare for mass ICE raids

Trump confirms mass raids on immigrant communities in 10 major cities are set to begin this weekend.

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    Demonstrators hold a ''Lights for Liberty'' rally march and vigil near the U.S. Mexico border crossing in the San Ysidro neighbourhood of San Diego as they protest immigration enforcement being conducted by the US government from San Diego, California [Mike Blake/Reuters]
    Demonstrators hold a ''Lights for Liberty'' rally march and vigil near the U.S. Mexico border crossing in the San Ysidro neighbourhood of San Diego as they protest immigration enforcement being conducted by the US government from San Diego, California [Mike Blake/Reuters]

    Washington, DC - Osman, an undocumented Sierra Leonean living and working in New York City, does his best to avoid the news.

    But as threats of mass raids and increasingly hostile rhetoric towards immigrants continue to come from the White House, Osman said he finds it difficult to just keep his head down.

    Osman, who wishes to only go by his first name, lost his Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in 2017 after the administration former US President Barack Obama ended the programme for the West African country.

    Having lived in the United States for six years, Osman decided to stay, but does what he can to not draw too much attention to himself and his family.

    Aside from commuting to work, Osman avoids leaving home, focusing his mind on reading, prayer and raising his 11- and nine-year-old children.

    Osman's gamble for a better life - one in which he hoped to liberate himself from his home country's legacy of conflict - stripped him of a home and left him in a state of perpetual anguish, not unlike the one he crossed an ocean to escape.

    "Sometimes, no matter how poor you are, you have peace of mind, with your little family, sometimes it's better than when you are so much in worry," Osman told Al Jazeera via the phone. "Coming back from the 10 years of civil war and then through the Ebola and this situation, it's just like [the] war continues."

    Raids announced, postponed, announced again

    Last month, President Donald Trump tweeted that imminent raids by immigration authorities would lead to the deportation of millions of undocumented people - a logistical impossibility, given the actual resources possessed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for executing deportation orders.

    Following a phone call with California Democrat and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last month, Trump said he cancelled the planned immigration sweeps, adding that he would give ICE the go-ahead to conduct deportations if Democrats failed to reach a compromise with Republicans to "work out a solution to the Asylum and Loophole problems at the Southern Border".

    This week, Trump began suggesting once again that mass deportations were imminent. On Thursday, the New York Times, citing two current and one former Homeland Security officials, announced the raids would begin Sunday and target 2,000 undocumented immigrants who have received orders of deportation in 10 cities, including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Houston.

    ICE deportation
    Demonstrators march through downtown Chicago calling for the abolition of ICE in 2018 rally [File: Scott Olson/Getty Images]

    According to the officials quoted in the New York Times, the operation will include "collateral" deportations, meaning that if during the course of their operation, ICE agents discover undocumented immigrants who are not their targets but happen to be at the site of a raid, those individuals can also be arrested.

    On Friday, Trump confirmed the raids would begin on Sunday. "We are focused on criminals as much as we can before we do anything else," he claimed.

    ICE declined to respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment.

    'Panic spreads regardless'

    Though Trump claims that ICE will treat criminals as priorities on Sunday, the raids are expected to target recently arrived undocumented people, many fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, who have already received final orders of removal from immigration judges. 

    "These are civil removal orders … it doesn't really align with criminality," said Jim Feroli, a lawyer working with the immigration legal services department at Catholic Charities in Washington, DC.

    The process that has played over the last month - announcing imminent raids, postponing them, before announcing them again - is to spread panic, according to Amaha Kassa, the executive director of African Communities Together, a national organisation of African immigrants from Africa.

    "There's a lot of people who are staying at home, leaving the house less, always a kind of growth in that panic any time … whether the raids happen or don't the panic spreads," Kassa told Al Jazeera.

    Sudden announcements and shifting narratives also put civil society organisations that provide support to undocumented communities under immense pressure.

    "The difficulties are in providing clients with correct information. We are here trying to read tea leaves," says Ruth Lopez-McCarthy, a lawyer with the National Immigrant Justice Center.

    Advocates and immigrant organisations are reminding communities about their rights if ICE agents show up. 

    Luis Aguilar, the Virginia state director of CASA, an organisation that advocates on behalf of low-income immigrants in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, said that knowledge of Sunday's raids is a double-edged sword. 

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    "It creates a sense of hysteria, and what makes it difficult is people are caught up in that and then the focus becomes that. So, within our work, it makes it both harder and easier," Aguilar said.

    "Not a single organisation can reach out to every single person," he told Al Jazeera. "There will be big groups of people vulnerable to deportations who might not know what a judicial warrant is so it's a constant work of making sure that we reach out to those people."

    Aguilar hopes, however, that the rhetoric will draw attention to the issue and prompt change.

    "The message we've been saying for a long time, that we need to fix this broken system, connects with a lot of people," he said.

    'Escalation of raids happening on a daily basis'

    Lakshmi Sridaran, the co-executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), an organisation based in Takoma Park, Maryland, hopes to use this attention to build a network of legal support that can be mustered to respond not just to Sunday's raids but to any future ICE operations in the long-term.

    "We've been working to create a rapid response legal network within the South Asian community because we've done some work on the border where South Asians have been detained in the San Diego and El Paso area," Sridaran told Al Jazeera. "There's been a need for rapid legal assistance. This is also a long term opportunity to build up that pipeline in the South Asian community."

    What's even more frightening and insidious is that this is actually happening like this on a more low-key level all the time throughout the year … these larger scale raids are just an escalation of something that's already happening on a daily basis.

    Lakshmi Sridaran, SAALT

    According to SAALT, ICE raided an Indian restaurant in Washington, DC, last week and detained several employees.

    "Something like this might not have even made the news had it not been for a community member letting us know," said Sridaran. "It could've just very easily slipped under the radar. To me, what's even more frightening and insidious is that this is actually happening like this on a more low-key level all the time throughout the year … these larger scale raids are just an escalation of something that's already happening on a daily basis." 

    ICE raids - protest
    Immigration rights activists hold a 'Lights for Liberty' rally and candle light vigil in front of the White House in Washington [Michael A McCoy/Reuters] 

    For undocumented immigrants like Osman, this means that even once the expected mass raids are over, vigilance will remain essential.

    Still, despite the anxieties that dog him each day, Osman said can do little more than remain cautious and discreet as he tries to provide for his family.

    "If I have to go to work on Sunday, I'll take my bag and go to work," Osman said. " I leave it to God."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News