Originally Published: February 12, 2017 11:48 p.m.
Pastor Fred Morris looked out over his congregation Sunday as news ricocheted around the world that American authorities were rounding up immigrants in an enforcement surge that President Donald Trump promised during the campaign trail.
Parishioners did not smile as on any other Sunday morning. Their eyes darted around the room. They stared down at their feet. Others didn’t attend at all.
“There is a dreadful sense of fear. It’s more than palpable. It’s radiating. People are terrified,” said Morris, whose United Methodist mission is in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Los Angeles. “They were just sitting there in stunned silence.”
For days, fear and confusion have gripped immigrant communities across the nation after word spread that federal agents were rounding up hundreds of immigrants in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, New York, California, Illinois and Texas. The scope of the operation remained unclear on Sunday.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said the efforts were “routine” and no different than the targeted arrests carried out under former President Barack Obama.
But Trump took to Twitter to claim credit.
“The crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise,” he wrote early Sunday. “Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!”
On the Sunday morning talk shows, the president’s representatives said the enforcement was a result of Trump’s policies.
White House policy adviser Stephen Miller told “Fox News Sunday” that the administration had “taken new and greater steps to remove criminal aliens” who pose a threat to public safety.
Among those arrested were a Salvadoran gang member wanted in his home country and a Brazilian drug trafficker, officials said.
Nearly 200 people were arrested in the Carolinas and Georgia. More than 150 more were rounded up in and around Los Angeles, and around 40 were arrested in New York City and surrounding areas, ICE confirmed.
A decade ago, immigration officers searching for specific individuals would often arrest others encountered along the way, a practice that drew criticism from advocates. Under the Obama administration, agents focused more narrowly on specific individuals. ICE now appears to be reverting back to old policies.
Immigrant rights groups cite the case of Manuel Mosqueda, a 50-year-old house painter, as an example of how they believe ICE agents in the new administration are going too far.
During last week’s enforcement operation, ICE agents showed up at Mosqueda’s home looking for someone else. While there, they inquired about Mosqueda, learned he was here illegally and put him on a bus to Mexico.
Karla Navarrete, a lawyer for the advocacy group CHIRLA, said she sought to stop Mosqueda from being placed on the bus and was told by ICE that things had changed. She said another lawyer filed federal court papers and got a judge to stop the deportation. The bus turned around, and Mosqueda is now jailed in Southern California, waiting to learn his fate.
Agents who went to a Virginia apartment Thursday looking for a wanted man picked up everyone else in the apartment too, except for one women with a baby in her arms, said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director for Legal Aid Justice Center’s immigrant advocacy program in northern Virginia.
For supporters of Trump’s immigration policies, the new and broader approach was welcome news.
“The main thing is to send the message that the immigration laws are actually being enforced again. That in itself is an important message that’s got to be sent,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates for tighter controls on immigration.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said the agency is simply enforcing federal law.
But immigration advocates said many immigrants are afraid to send their children to school and afraid to go to church or work or the hospital.
Panicked rumors spread as quickly as the truth.
“Every time so much as a white guy with a clipboard is walking around, everyone runs into their apartments and locks the doors,” he said.
One case that sowed widespread fear was that of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, a mother of two in Phoenix who was arrested nearly a decade ago for using a false ID to get a job as a janitor. She pleaded guilty to a felony charge, but the government declined to deport her. On Wednesday, she showed up at the ICE building in Phoenix for a scheduled check-in with immigration officers and was deported to Mexico.
Advocates and immigration attorney across the country scrambled to hold seminars and conference calls teaching people their rights.
At his Sunday morning service, Morris handed out a double-sided sheet listing congregants’ civil rights. The first read “don’t open your door.” He is planning a community meeting for Monday night with lawyers, immigration advocates and consuls from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala.
He has another plan, too. He started organizing a phone chain. If he hears about a raid on a home in his community, he will call five people, who will call five people and so on. They will all show up, stand on the sidewalk and chant: “ICE go home.” He hopes “public shaming” will prove to be a deterrent.
“The only weapon we have is solidarity,” he said. “They are deporting people who may be undocumented, but they do have rights under our laws.”
Associated Press Writer Josh Hoffner in Phoenix contributed to this report.