On Feb. 15, some 20 people were taken without warning from their homes in and around Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Government officials will not confirm the details of the operation, but advocates and residents say immigration agents raided a mobile home park and arrested people who they were not initially searching for.
One woman who lives in the park says that at 6 a.m., as she was getting her kids ready for school, seven unmarked vehicles arrived at the Los Arboles mobile home park. She asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. She says the cars blocked the entrance of the park. The agents seemed to have at least one warrant for an unidentified, deportable man with a Hispanic last name. The woman says officers swept through the entire park, banging on residents’ doors and demanding they let them in and show their papers.
An interfaith immigrant advocacy group, New Mexico CAFé, connected PRI with the woman who explained what happened that morning. Organizer Sara Melton says, according to family members and eyewitness accounts, they believe at least 20 residents were apprehended at the mobile home park and in the nearby communities of Vado and Chaparral, just outside Las Cruces.
Residents and advocates say some people who were detained offered up their immigration status when asked, though they are not required to do so. Others, the woman says, were apprehended by agents blocking the entrance to the mobile home park as they tried to leave.
One resident, Lizzett Solis, told the local CBS news station that agents forcefully entered her neighbor’s home. “They didn't even show her a clear picture, they showed her a piece of paper saying that they're looking for somebody,” she said.
After the immigration operation in February, at least five of the people arrested were held locally in the Doña Ana County jail. Melton says New Mexico CAFé is still working to trace others who were taken.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined PRI’s requests to comment on the operation or to confirm the total number of residents who were arrested. After the raid, 100 people gathered to rally at the foot of the Las Cruces federal courthouse and to find out what had happened.
The realities of the federal immigration system are nothing new for New Mexico, especially for the people who gathered in front of one of the nation’s busiest federal courthouses for criminal immigration prosecutions. In December 2016, 231 immigration cases were filed in this court, according to data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Another 138 cases were filed in January and 94 in February.
Nationally, deportations hit 40-year highs during the Obama administration. The Department of Homeland Security reports that in the 2016 fiscal year, 92 percent of interior removals — people not removed at a border — were previously convicted of a crime.
According to Doña Ana County jail records, two of the five confirmed detainees were convicted of possessing and intending to distribute marijuana. Three were arrested for illegally entering the US after having been deported at least once already.
The action, and the lack of official information about it, prompted fear in the neighborhood. The Las Cruces Public Schools district says that 2,366 of their 24,870 students were recorded absent the day after the operation.
Las Cruces is a majority Hispanic city of about 100,000 people, 45 miles north of the US-Mexico border. The city — and New Mexico — voted solidly for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Las Cruces is not calling itself a “sanctuary city,” but law enforcement agencies have a policy of not sharing the immigration status with federal immigration agents of people who aren’t convicted of a crime.
But that does not mean that immigration officers cannot affect this town. So, many immigrants and advocates are trying to answer this question: Is there any way to keep mixed-status immigrant families together?
Brandon Vasquez certainly wants an answer. He was brought into the US illegally when he was 2, when his family moved to Las Cruces from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Now 19, he studies at Doña Ana Community College and has temporary work authorization through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, DACA, that was created during the Obama administration.
“I hoped for the best and now one of my worst chapters is about to begin. It already started,” Vasquez says.
Vasquez fears the limited protections afforded by DACA will end under the Trump administration. He also worries about his family, many of whom are undocumented but don’t qualify for DACA.
CAFé’s answer is, at some point, people here will need to put their bodies between their neighbors and federal agents if they want to stop deportations. CAFé stands for New Mexico Comunidades en Acción y de Fe — Communities in Action and Faith, in Spanish.
The group’s executive director, Sarah Silva, took the microphone at the courthouse rally to explain this approach to the crowd: “Some say it is going to take an act of God to stop deportations and detentions under this new administration. I say that we are the act of God! Amen?”
About 100 people chanted back, “Amen!”
They spilled into the street and interlocked their arms, blocking traffic. Then they marched up to the intersection of Main Street.
It was late afternoon, just before rush hour. The protesters re-linked arms and sat down in the middle of the busy road, chanting or praying as a half dozen police officers monitored their actions.
“What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! And if we don’t get it? Shut it down!”
Officers re-routed traffic and Las Cruces Police Chief Jaime Montoya, on one knee, pleaded with protest leaders to move the demonstration off the road. But they didn’t budge for 40 minutes. Then, protesters gave Main Street back to rush hour traffic. No arrests were made.
Silva told protesters that shutting down rush hour traffic is just a glimpse of the civil disobedience that might be needed to defend against the expanded scope of immigration action. And she announced that CAFé would conduct “rapid response training” to help.
Two and a half weeks later, 136 people gather for one such training at a church retreat outside Las Cruces.
Most of those who show up are retirees and students. Jaime Escalante is among a few people at the training who himself has a mixed immigration status family. He is in his 40s and lives in Vado, the largely Hispanic, rural community outside the Las Cruces city limits that was also subject to ICE action in mid February.
“I thought it is going to be a lot of Hispanics, but it is not. It amazed me because there are a lot of Anglo people and I was like, man this is cool,” he says.
Growing up in Vado, Escalante saw friends, neighbors and family taken away by immigration agents — including his mother, who was deported when he was too young to understand why he would have to drive to Juárez, Mexico, to see her.
Escalante attends a break-out session on civil disobedience. CAFé community organizer Allex Luna leads volunteers through different protest techniques and models how to respond non–violently to confrontations with law enforcement.
The hypothetical scenario: Protesters are blocking the path of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement truck during a deportation raid. Luna plays the role of the protester: “I am here on the highway just standing my ground. On the highway on the road,” he says.
An attendee, Nick Hadsell, plays the ICE officer: “If you don’t leave, we are going to detain you and drag you out of here!”
Luna turns to the audience and asks, “Is it a moment where we are going to be arrested?”
“So [we are] going limp, making it difficult as possible,” Luna says. “If they are doing something where they are twisting your arm, be vocal. ‘Why are you doing this? Ouch! You are hurting me!’ Describe. It is kind of that moment where you are kind of telling a story, and we are over-exaggerating the emotion.”
Luna tells the group that while public protests can bump issues to the top of a news cycle, aggression and violence skews the narrative, distracts from the issue and detracts from protesters’ credibility.
“We are lifting up this public narrative,” Luna says. “Our civil disobedience is coming from a sheer place of radical revolutionary love. Part of that too is meeting and showing up and just displaying our bodies. There is a sacredness to it where we come and we are presenting our bodies to our people that are being taken at this moment and being targeted.”
After the exercise, Hadsell explains that he only learned about local immigration operations from news stories about the Main Street protest. He came to the training to join their efforts.
“If by doing that we buy somebody an extra day in the country, that is an extra day they can get legal services or legal help. It is an extra day they [immigration agents] are not separating families,” Hadsell says. “We are trying to be there as a community to support each other.”
But the training is clear: No one stands in front of a truck before a lot of planning and coordination.
They use a system called “Migra Watch,” which was developed by the national interfaith organization PICO, People Improving Communities through Organizing. Bilingual operators monitor a 1-800 hotline set up for volunteers to call in about ICE activity. As reports are confirmed, operators send out text message alerts with the locations and directions via an encrypted computer network.
Once supporters and volunteers arrive, actions range from praying together, to watching the operation as “prophetic witnesses,” to physically disrupting the operation. But the network only proceeds if the individuals and families facing imminent deportation want them to.
One woman from Mexico who is undocumented and did not want to be named was in a training session about how to prepare, legally, for being deported. She supports CAFé’s approach: “I want it to be as hard as possible for them to separate me from my family,” she said in Spanish.
Not everyone agrees.
“It sounds like a preposterous, absurd thing to do,” says Doña Ana County Republican Party Chair Roman Jimenez.
He says CAFé’s plans are misguided. Two of the five confirmed detainees from the February immigration raids are facing criminal allegations of dealing marijuana, he says. Criminal immigrants, Jimenez says, should be deported.
And protesters who shutdown the rush hour traffic show a blatant disregard for the law and public safety, he says.
During the Main Street protest, a motorist tried to maneuver through a line of people who blocked a cross walk, bumping into a protestor. The protester wasn’t injured and did not press charges. (Though none of the bills have passed, many states have recently considered or are considering laws that would increase punishments for protesters or remove liability for motorists who hit protesters on streets. There is no such bill in the works in New Mexico.)
Jimenez, who was an officer with the New Mexico State Police Department for 22 years, was surprised demonstrators could shut down Main Street for as long as they did.
“In other jurisdictions, they would have been arrested,” he says.
Jimenez says he respects the right to peacefully protest but is completely against CAFé training community members to physically intervene in ICE operations.
“What I worry about again is what lengths they are willing to go to get their message across. And it sounds to me that the objective is to get arrested, so if the police aren’t going to arrest them for blocking a road, maybe that means they have to do something a little bit more aggressive.” Jimenez says.
Las Cruces falls under the jurisdiction of ICE’s regional office in El Paso, Texas. The spokeswoman there, Leticia Zamarripa, declined to comment on how the agency might handle CAFé volunteers’ disruption, but she said in an email that, “ICE will seek prosecution against individuals who unlawfully interfere with lawful enforcement actions.”
Back at the training, Escalante says he is not sure he can justify getting arrested. It would risk his job with the postal service and that would impact his family. Many others in the training discovered that even being arrested, without charge, could put their legal immigration status at risk and even their US citizenship, if they’re naturalized citizens.
Jan Thompson, though, says, she is willing to be arrested. “I am willing to interfere directly with the arrest or detention and possible deportation of an individual,” she says.
She wants to leverage her relatively safe status as a white, US citizen retiree wherever she can. “These are opportunities for me to use that privilege to represent people who cannot do it for themselves for a number of reasons. But I can and I must,” she says.
Escalante says he is moved by the diversity of people beginning to stand up for immigrants. But he asks, why now? ICE sweeps have been happening in Vado since he was a child.
“It amazes me how long it has taken,” Escalante says. “We used to work in the fields — you would see immigration raids all the time. They would come over and you would see people running all over the place, you know, trying to hide. Nobody would say anything.”
At the church, CAFé organizer Johana Bencomo, who has been organizing in New Mexico immigrant communities for half a decade, reminds the 136 volunteers of the gravity and unpredictability of what they are signing up for and getting into.
“This is a long-term commitment. This is not going to be pretty,” Bencomo says. “This probably going to be messy for a little while.”
“We are not going to stop at these tactics,” Bencomo says. “For us in our organizing, it is eventually getting to a place where we actually have fair and just immigration reform. That doesn’t criminalize people, that doesn’t militarize the border. That is still is the north star for us.”