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Stamford Confronts Fear Of Immigration Raids

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Cassandra Basler
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At the start of the year, an undocumented 26-year-old mother of two from Central America was holed up in her home in Stamford, Conn. for a week. She was terrified that immigration agents would come to her door.

She heard more than 100 undocumented Central Americans were already taken from their homes in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas at the start of the year.

A KNOCK AT THE DOOR

That Stamford mother of two doesn’t want to use her name and asked to be identified by her initials, E.I. She said she hadn’t left her home for days after the New Year, when she heard a knock at the door.

“I was struck with fear. And what I did was I stood up on a chair near the kitchen window to look outside,” E.I. said in Spanish that she saw the police standing outside.

They told her to open the door. She said no.

“And they knocked harder once again, ‘Open the door,’” she said, through a translator. “I asked, ‘for what?’ and didn’t open the door.”

Finally, the police told her through the door that crews planned to cut down trees on her street. She breathed a sigh of relief.

E.I. shared her story at Neighbors Link, a community center in Stamford that offers English classes and job training to the Latino community. She came to the center for a meeting about the immigration raids that happened at the start of the year. E.I. said she learned one reason she shouldn’t be afraid: the Stamford Police Department is not one of a few dozen departments in the country that work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

During the meeting, Catalina Horak, who runs the Neighbors Link community center, emphasized that Stamford police protect and serve undocumented residents the same way they protect and serve U.S. citizens. She said the police do not deport people.

“Please, please understand the difference between police and immigration [agents]. We cannot emphasize that enough,” Horak said to a room of 100 community members on Jan. 9.

Horak invited social workers, immigration lawyers, and Stamford Police to dispel rumors that immigration agents targeted Connecticut during the raids.

Horak said people had stopped coming to their English classes at Neighbors Link at the start of the year because they were terrified to leave home. She said parents had been asking her frantic questions about immigration raids: “What is happening? What is happening? Do you think that immigration is going to come to our house?”

“I mean, we opened here five years ago,” Horak said. “I’ve never heard people say a word about immigration coming to Neighbor’s Link.”

Horak said Stamford Police had to call ICE to debunk rumors that immigration agents picked up day laborers along the I-95 exit next near Neighbors Link. Stamford Police confirmed that immigration agents have no immediate plans to raid Connecticut, but rumors had already spread fear via social media.

FEAR GOES VIRAL

16-year-old Paola Perez, who asked to use a different name to protect her undocumented family members, said fear of a potential raid like the ones happening in Texas and Arizona has spread in Connecticut.

Perez scrolled through Facebook posts on her Smartphone and tapped on one a photo of two men in black ICE uniforms standing next to a silver car. In Spanish, the caption says ‘Look out for immigration in Connecticut.’ The photo has 13,000 likes. It sparked the rumors earlier this month that immigration agents arrested people along I-95 near Perez’s house.

The photo of ICE agents scared her mom so much that she didn’t let the family leave home for four days.

“My mom said, ‘No, we’re not going outside,’ because like everyone, my parents don’t have their papers and my brothers don’t have them. I only have one brother who was born here and he’s the only one who has papers, but he’s eight,” Perez said through a translator. “My mom started to think, if they deport us, what’s going to happen to him? Who was he going to stay with? And so we didn’t go outside because we were scared of all the rumors people were saying.”

Perez left Guatemala almost two years ago as an unaccompanied minor. She came in a wave of tens of thousands of children fleeing violence in Central America. Her mother came to Stamford from Guatemala years before, so Perez has applied for a juvenile visa to stay with her.

Perez goes to high school in Stamford. She said community leaders, including Horak, came to quash the rumors when she returned to school.

“They said that we shouldn’t be afraid. That we had rights and they informed us about the rights we do have, even though we’re not residents,” Perez said. Perez added that she knows she has the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney under the U.S. Constitution.

She also learned that the raids focused on Central American immigrants who came here after 2014 and already received deportation orders. Perez said after hearing that, her family is a little more relaxed. They know Perez won’t be targeted — even though she came to the U.S. after 2014 — because she hired an immigration lawyer to bring her case to court.

SEEKING LEGAL REPRESENTATION

Horak said families can still be targeted for deportation raids if they don’t show up to immigration court. A judge automatically issues no-shows a deportation order in absentia before they get a chance to argue their case.

“It could be that there are a lot of people in this community who don’t even know they have a deportation order,” Horak said, “because of a change of address, because it got lost in the mail, because that’s how you get your court order.”

Neighbors Link has been handing out information to families that explain how to check if they have an open immigration case against them, or if they already have a deportation order.

Horak said she understands that families face challenges arguing their immigration cases. She said many undocumented immigrants may not show up to court because they can’t find a good, affordable lawyer.

Horak told community members during a meeting at Neighbors Link that she wants to help. She’s organizing another meeting with immigration attorneys to answer people’s specific questions about their legal options.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, said in a statement that it plans to pick up more people with deportation orders this year, including families and unaccompanied children. So Horak wants families to find out if they have a case and get a lawyer before immigration agents come knocking.

“Be proactive about it,” she said, “as opposed to just having immigration come.”

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