With the recent large-scale work raids at sites like Bean Station, Tennessee, or Sumner, Texas, in which ICE agents arrested upwards of 100 community members at a time, it is easy to forget that immigration home raids happen all year, all over the country. These raids are happening not only in Chicago, Los Angeles, or other cities with large immigrant communities, but also in small West Michigan cities like Holland. Whether ICE raids entrap over a hundred community members or a lone father in a family of four, the emotional, psychological, and financial impacts can be devastating.
I sat down with Sarah Yore-Van Oosterhout, founder of Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates, to talk about her work supporting immigrant families in West Michigan. Her organization, a nonprofit immigration law office and advocacy center in Holland, Michigan, principally serves low-income immigrants and refugees in the region, providing them with legal services, advocacy and education.
William Lopez: What is your experience with immigration raids and immigration enforcement?
Sarah Yore-Van Oosterhout: While we don’t experience raids in the same volume as other parts of our state, such as Southeast Michigan or even Kent County, they do happen here. And they happen frequently enough that people are terrified. In the last year, we’ve counseled churches, community organizations and even schools about mitigating the impacts of this fear — in particular, decreased attendance and participation in services and events. People living in fear of immigration enforcement have reduced their activities to the bare minimum: school, work and grocery. Health care, church, community events, food donation, counseling, sports, legal services, etc. are examples of things people are cutting from their lives to avoid spending too much time exposed in public. People are truly living in the shadows here in West Michigan. Together with other local organizations and churches, we’ve brainstormed ways to bring people back out into the community, but the simple fact of the matter is until this anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican administration is gone, these folks won’t ever feel safe leaving their homes.
People would rather give up 20 years of roots in the United States than live in terror. Particularly in the first and second quarters of 2017, we learned of several Holland families who self-deported. A raid on February 14, 2017, inspired at least a couple of those families to leave. Many leave with the hope of being able to apply for lawful re-entry in 10 years through a US citizen child.
The raid on February 14, 2017, was, like most raids, violent. Not violent in the sense that the detainees were brutally beaten, but violent in the sense that the safety of their homes and workplaces was violated. One of the raids took place at a home in rural Holland. A mother and her four-year-old child were asleep at the time ICE came to her home. On the far side of the house, she couldn’t hear ICE knocking at the door. ICE claims they knocked and knocked and knocked and she never answered, so they proceeded to kick down her door. The intrusion violently brought both her and her child out of their sleep. Both were frantic. Men with guns and bullet-proof vests and black head-to-toe clothing filed into her home. They forced her to her knees and had her put her hands behind her back. Meanwhile, her child screamed from the bedroom. ICE would not allow her to go to the child. Eventually, they allowed her to call a friend to come take care of the child.
This woman was one of those who self-deported along with three of her US citizen children. She left a daughter in college with DACA status alone in the United States. Even hundreds of miles away from the United States, she still lives in fear. Her home, her refuge, was violently violated….
Unfortunately, the fear of immigration enforcement has left many families vulnerable to scams and trickery. Here in Holland, we have a particularly nefarious notaria pública who has plagued our community for close to a decade. Notarios públicos are a notorious part of the immigration landscape throughout the United States, sometimes misleading immigrants into paying for services that can only be performed by an immigration attorney. We continue to learn about the double trauma many Holland families have endured. First, they put their trust in one of their own — a notaria pública — who grew up here in Holland, went to school with many of her victims, and is herself a dual Mexican and US citizen. She claimed to have connections to ICE chief counsel and an immigration court judge. She also claimed to have trained a respected local attorney. She seemed knowledgeable, especially to trusting friends and families. People eagerly handed her thousands so that she would fix their immigration problems.
Often, she would come to a family just after a raid and pretend to call her ICE chief counsel contact or the immigration judge. Some families gave their entire life savings to the notaria pública with hopes that she would get their family out of removal proceedings or obtain some miraculous immigration benefit. Eventually … some of these families even discovered she was full of false promises when ICE broke down their doors.
One victim of the notaria pública’s scams recalled giving her $2,000. The victim’s family remembers watching the notaria pública pace around the living room engaged in what seemed like heated negotiations with an immigration official. She hung up the phone and informed them that the client did not need to report to the Detroit Immigration Court. She had handled it. The family was relieved. Soon after the client missed his Immigration Court hearing, ICE showed up at their door late one night, in the dark, covered head-to-toe in black, wearing bullet-proof vests, carrying guns. Everyone was asleep. They heard the knocking and went to the door. Before they knew what was happening, ICE poured into their home. The children in the home were screaming. One girl went to the back bedroom and informed her uncle, the client, who she regarded as a father figure, that ICE was in the house to pick him up. He calmly went to the living room and ICE shoved him to the ground and forced everyone to sit or stand at the perimeter of the room. They handcuffed him and dragged him away from his family and home in the middle of the night. The family had no idea why he was picked up, where he was going or when they would see him again.
I had the opportunity to speak with four of the kids who were present at that raid. None of them could talk about it without crying. They were angry they had been betrayed by the notaria publica — a friend, someone they had regarded as family. They were traumatized by the ICE violation of their home. And they were haunted by the memories of their uncle being hauled away into the night.
It was five years before they saw their uncle again. He was offered voluntary departure and returned to Mexico. He was beaten and robbed after he was dropped on the other side of the southwest border. Eventually, he was able to return to the United States through a family petition.
Our office has been working with other government officers to apprehend this woman…. Thankfully, late last year, a federal warrant was obtained for her arrest, allowing her to be extradited from whatever state she might be living in at the time. This notaria publica was recently arrested and is awaiting federal criminal trial for crimes committed in both Michigan and south Texas.
What is the role of advocacy organizations in combating deportation? In combating immigration raids?
Roles of advocacy organizations in combating deportation and raids can vary. We need people working on multiple levels, from federal and state advocacy projects to grassroots advocacy projects that will change the system from the bottom up. In our state, the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center works to change actual policy. Our organization works to change local policy and public sentiment through advocacy campaigns and community-wide education. In January 2016, our office took a group of college students from surrounding West Michigan colleges and universities — principally from Hope College — to the Texas-Mexico border for a week to explore issues of deportation and border practices. While we were able to meet with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and ICE and tour facilities, we weren’t able to get a clear look at what’s really happening at the southern border. ICE and CBP sent out their most congenial public relations official to tour our group around. The way he painted it, they were running a five-star hotel for immigrants. Thankfully, we countered the neatly packaged ICE/CBP tours with meetings with clergy, NGOs and others who worked directly with immigrants at the border. Their stories were enough to convince the college students that ICE and CBP had fed them a lie. While we can’t lead mass tours of the border region, bringing greater awareness to what’s happening there is an important part of advocacy as well. And it’s not just an issue of what happens to people after they cross, but what happens after they’re deported. People die after being deported. They’re dropped off on the other side of the border where gangs are waiting. At best, they’re beaten and robbed. At worst, they’re left to die in a ditch.
Many people who do not work with or are not themselves part of immigrant communities are not familiar with immigration raids. If you could tell them one thing about raids, what would you say?
A lot of folks not connected with this issue buy into the lie that the government is [conducting raids] to “secure our communities,” to make us “safer.” But the reality is, in fact, the opposite. Half the time, ICE has rural cops doing their job for them. Arresting people for driving with no license, booking them and then calling ICE to let them know they “picked up an illegal.” Of the deportation cases our office consulted on last year, all of them were for minor offenses such as driving without a driver’s license. Immigrants aren’t going to report crimes when they feel like they themselves may be arrested just for reporting a crime…. Raids, deportation and immigration enforcement eat away at the roots of our community. Families are destabilized, which, in turn, destabilizes communities. Immigration raids are having the opposite impact of what the government leads everyone to believe.
It’s frequently stated that advocacy movements are siloed. Do you see links between the work you do and that of other movements?
We’ve been spending a lot of time working on an advocacy project called the Welcoming Initiative. Most Welcoming movements in Michigan focus exclusively on welcoming immigrants and refugees. Our office — seeing that West Michigan is struggling to welcome multiple marginalized populations, not only immigrants and refugees — created the Welcoming initiative, which seeks to promote inclusion of all marginalized populations — immigrants and refugees, people of color, woman, elderly, differently abled, LGBTQ, religious groups, etc. We recognize that advocacy movements tend to operate independent of other movements. Our group feels there is a thread of commonality among these movements and only through collaboration will we maximize our impact.