Under the US Deportation Regime, Activists Are Policing Themselves

Last summer, I received a call from an unknown number. It was the Dearborn Police Department calling collect. I immediately panicked, deposited $10 via credit card into the calling system and waited for the phone call to connect. Except I was too late: The caller on the other line either became impatient or was not allowed to wait for me to fumble with a credit card number and an automatic phone system. I couldn’t figure out who was calling.

This made me panic even more. I called my brother, my mom, my dad and then went through a mental list of people who I know are undocumented and could be in trouble, knowing full well that the Dearborn Police Department sometimes holds people for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). When I couldn’t reach any of my family members, I sent a flurry of text messages, running through my head if I could remember where each of my family members was supposed to be at that time of day. After a few minutes that felt like hours, my parents and brother got back to me. They were OK.

I never did find out who called me from the Dearborn Police Department.

Many people wouldn’t associate a call from the police department with immigration; their minds wouldn’t automatically jump to “My family has been detained by ICE.” But when the threat of immigration detention looms over you every day, it’s hard not to continuously have it at the front of your mind.

Self-Policing and Reshaped Lives

Over the past year, the worst-case scenario that flashed through my mind the day I got that unexpected phone call has become a horrifying reality for thousands of people. Every day, there are new headlines about deported parents, US citizen children left behind and DACA recipients left in limbo. The fear of encounters with law enforcement — whether it be in the form of federal immigration enforcement or local officers deputized to enforce immigration rules — has led many people to reshape their lives.

In effect, the threat of policing has led people to police themselves, restricting their engagement in community. There are countless reports on the myriad ways in which individuals and families have adapted their behaviors, limiting activities that require driving or showing IDs, such as attending medical appointments, using nutrition programs or food banks, or even hesitating to report cases of sexual assault. These responses are not illogical. When communities cannot trust that their doctors, police officers, or even their neighbors and acquaintances will not turn them in to immigration, they must continuously monitor and surveil their own interactions and behavior. After all, everyday activities such as, driving to the store, dropping a child at school or going to court to report sexual assault could escalate to an immigration matter.

Immigration Status: A Conflict for Activists

While the everyday activities of immigrant parents and community members have long been sites of “self-policing,” a newer “risky behavior” leading to targeting by immigration enforcement has emerged in recent months: immigration activism. As we saw most recently in the deportation of immigrant rights’ activists Jean Montrevil to Haiti, and the detainment of Eliseo Jurado and Maru Mora-Villalpando, immigrant activists are specifically being targeted and deported. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed concern that these deportations are direct retaliations for the political work of these organizers. Whereas once it was understood among activist circles that sharing your story publicly and becoming an advocate for immigrant rights could offer you protection, that is no longer the case.

The pointed targeting of activists is forcing many undocumented organizers to reconsider how they resist and at what expense. A local community activist shared, “Now I am more reserved, because I don’t know where I’ll find myself. I don’t talk about it [being undocumented], really, I don’t. Before, I would yell it out loud, on TV; not anymore, because of the political climate. It affects my liberty. I don’t know who I am surrounded by, I don’t know who to trust, or to even say ‘I like organizing,’ because maybe people will automatically think that I don’t have documentation.”

Sara, who was an immigrant rights organizer for eight years in New Orleans before moving to Ypsilanti, Michigan, and taking a hiatus, echoed this sentiment. “A lot has changed,” said Sara, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym for fear of being outed as undocumented. “Before, people were afraid; now, there is terror. People are terrorized, they’re threatened. So much has changed. If people keep doing what they were doing before, now the consequences are much worse.”

Emphasizing how much crueler Trump’s administration has felt in its attitudes toward undocumented people, Sara explained that Trump’s administration uses fear to divide communities. She also expressed frustration about how people have become too isolated to organize effectively. “Every person is an island,” she told Truthout, adding that it’s both a problem of terror and of not being organized enough to defend each other.

Living under the shadows of immigration can indeed lead to social isolation and seclusion. However, it is important not to discount the role that fear and trauma play, and how they force communities to self-police for the sake of self-preservation. Instead, we must consider how to provide culturally appropriate mental health services to process high levels of stress and anxiety that can be associated with immigration-related trauma.

Unfortunately, the instability of the current immigration environment is leading even authorized immigrants and naturalized citizens to mistrust the relative security of their immigration statuses, and reviving the trauma of past immigration-related stresses. René is an immigrant advocate in Iowa who prefers not to share his full name because he is not a naturalized US citizen. He shared his story of accompanying an undocumented woman to her routine check-in appointment with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He invited his organization’s administrative assistant, who is not an immigrant, to join them so they could feel more secure. “After the check-in, right before we got on the freeway to go home, a car from Homeland Security was behind us. I said, ‘Really, they’re already here?’ And you know, the car went a different direction, toward another town. But still, you’ve got that fear. It’s real.”

Meanwhile, Natalia Espina, a naturalized US citizen and activist in eastern Iowa, commented on the tension she feels between a duty to leverage her position as a naturalized citizen and the stress of reviving traumatic memories of times when her immigration status was insecure: I went through the immigration process for so long with my family,” she told Truthout. “It was a piece of my life that took so much time, energy and effort and did have mental health impacts. I feel like I have no choice but to act and speak out for other people, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

She added that these days, now that she can safely accompany others to their ICE check-ins and the like, she still feels “that general insecurity of not knowing, like, Am I going to be questioned because I am Latina, because of my skin tone?

Even more private elements of supporting undocumented friends and neighbors can trigger vigilance and stress for immigrants with more secure statuses. Natalia shared: “Recently, a woman called us; her friend had been detained and she was at the immigration court to pay the bond to get her friend out of detention. She is a US citizen — which is one proof of status acceptable for paying bond — and of course, she wanted to help her friend, but it was still totally nerve-wracking for her. She wasn’t sure if it would go on her record, or if it would count as ‘aiding and abetting’ or something like that, to participate in this routine part of the legal process. I wanted to tell her it was fine, but … you can’t be sure. I just told her, ‘You know, I worry about these things, too.'”

Impacts on Community Health and Well-Being

The self-policing of immigrant activists and advocates, described above, has far-reaching implications for their own health and for the strength and resilience of the communities they serve. They regularly encounter high-stakes decisions about how to engage as an activist, how to present oneself, and whether to put oneself in a potentially vulnerable circumstance (such as going to an ICE check-in or paying a bond). Living under the constant threat of deportation, or having past experiences of this threat, forces communities to live with an added layer of caution and vigilance. Even if someone is not currently experiencing an immigration crisis, living under the mere possibility of it adds a level of trauma, anxiety and stress.

As essential as exercising vigilance about one’s behavior and surroundings may be in the short-term, it does not come without a toll. There is growing evidence that persistent anticipation or preparation for racially charged encounters can wear on people’s minds and bodies over time, leading to depression, anxiety and PTSD, sleep difficulties, or even physiological changes that are linked to chronic disease.

Loss of Talent and Community Engagement

Participating in immigration activism or advocacy can be a powerful and empowering coping response — an intentional and pro-social way to channel the stress and frustration of living with persistent injustices. However, increasingly aggressive and high-profile immigration enforcement is changing the way in which immigrants interact in the world. The retaliation against social activists is reinforcing a pattern of self-vigilance, which in turn is hindering people’s involvement in social change. Our communities are losing talent, organizing skills and the voices and energy of many activists who are especially afraid of this administration, and with good reason.

When activists must limit their involvement due to the real risk of immigration enforcement — whether it be immigration retribution or not — our whole community loses. The vigilance being practiced by immigrant communities and immigrants’ right activists is an essential act of self-preservation in the face of real threats but will have enduring impacts on the health of our communities.

Note: Nicole Novak, Ph.D., M.Sc., contributed reporting for this article. She can be reached at nicole-novak@uiowa.edu.