STOCKTON, California – In a small back room at Victory in Praise, a predominantly African American church in this Central Valley city, community organizer Arturo Palato assessed his troops. The gathering included a teacher, a social worker, a salesman and a student – about a dozen in all.
Palato’s mission: Convince this disparate crew that they have a crucial role to play when immigration authorities come to round up their neighbors. Take notes. Take photos. And provide key eyewitness accounts if something goes awry.
“We cannot stop ICE from doing what they do,” said Curtis Smith, a local pastor and community organizer, as he warned the volunteers not to interfere with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “But we can offer support so that people know they can count on their community to show up in their time of need.”
The “rapid response” training program was one of a half-dozen being carried out this fall by Faith in the Valley, an interfaith nonprofit in California’s Central Valley that is seeking ways legal residents and citizens can respond if massive roundups and deportations begin. The programs have attracted about 150 volunteers who are signing up to manage distress calls, show up where ICE is conducting roundups and help children who are left behind.
Similar volunteer squads are being organized across the country, including in Virginia, Colorado and Massachusetts. But California’s effort promises to be among the largest and most sophisticated, in part because of sheer numbers. It is the state with the most people thought to be living illegally in the United States: more than 2 million. The Central Valley, with more than 300 varieties of crops that need to be harvested to feed the nation and beyond, is one clear magnet for them.
And even in California, where the governor recently signed a law to discourage law enforcement cooperation with ICE, the impact of Trump administration policies will be felt as federal immigrant assistance programs are cut. That’s where grassroots efforts such as the rapid response program come in.
A dispatch system for volunteers
Sukaina Hussain, who teamed with Palato at Victory in Praise, spoke in a rapid cadence to the prospective volunteers, as if to underscore her message: Speed is crucial. She told the story of a man who recently was picked up by ICE in Merced and within a few hours transferred to Fresno, then Bakersfield.
“We called our colleagues in Bakersfield, and by the time they got there, they had already signed deportation orders,” Hussain said. The man who was detained, she said, “did not know what to do.” And the responders? “All we could do was bring him his clothing.”
Faith in the Valley has been working for the past six months to set up the rapid response system.
The effort – funded by member congregations, individuals and foundations such as the California Endowment, Catholic Campaign for Human Development and Sierra Health Foundation – is built on a network of volunteers who are contacted via text message. They agree to show up at an ICE raid at a moment’s notice to take names, notes and photos to track authorities’ actions and find out where the arrested are being sent. Then they can try to send legal help.
So far, the system has been used only once, before the cellphone dispatching was set up. Amanda Peterson, who teaches at Sunnyside High School in Fresno, got a Facebook message from a student that ICE was at a nearby grocery store. She called the emergency number Faith in the Valley had provided and went to see what was happening herself.
“I cruised the parking lot to look for government cars and talked to the manager,” she said.
It turned out the ICE officers had gone to the store to get groceries. But Peterson said it was a good test run.
Juan Schwanker, who offer various types of support, including legal aid, to troubled youths at Fathers & Families of San Joaquin, attended the training session at Victory in Praise. He was planning to take part in additional online training to become a dispatcher.
“It seems that the administration agenda is to make folks of different ethnic backgrounds and beliefs feel uncomfortable,” he said to the group.
It is making him uncomfortable, too.
“I don’t like seeing children being scared,” he said. “They come to America, where they have the possibility of seeing their dreams come true. That seems like a distant reality now.”
That fear is weighing on many people living in the U.S. without authorization. In the first six months of 2017, there was a steady increase in ICE arrests of those who had no criminal record in the U.S. beyond illegal entry, federal data show.
The California Assembly recently passed a group of bills aimed at protecting such immigrants and discouraging police cooperation with ICE unless the person ICE is seeking has a substantial criminal record. Many state officials have sparred openly with the Trump administration about its approach.
“These are uncertain times for undocumented Californians and their families,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement when he signed one of the laws discouraging information sharing with ICE. “And this bill strikes a balance that will protect public safety, while bringing a measure of comfort to those families who are now living in fear every day.”
Groups such as Faith in the Valley hope to do just that. However, these types of volunteer assistance programs soon might face new challenges, as the Trump administration is using several methods to try to restrict immigration and those who offer assistance, including legal aid to immigrants.
Immigration policies quietly restricted
While Congress and the Trump administration have yet to begin serious negotiations about immigration, officials already have taken several steps to slow the flow of immigrants.
Media attention has focused on the flashpoints: raids outside churches and detentions of parents without their children, of sick children, of people who have lived in their communities for decades, and of a teenager who sought an abortion and had just crossed the border.
But many details of the more sweeping threats by the Trump administration have been ignored or their significance underestimated. Those plans are hiding in plain sight and portend a broader series of anti-immigrant actions in the next few months, whether or not the administration and Congress change the laws.
The Trump administration recently said it is ending a program that helped fund lawyers who provide assistance to children who cross the border illegally without an adult. The Trump tax overhaul proposal recommends removing the deduction undocumented parents can take for each child, even if the children are U.S. citizens.
The Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent agency, quietly announced another significant policy change in the Federal Register on Aug. 16. It will end a program that aided thousands of children who arrived at the border after traveling on their own from Central America. Many of those children already had been approved to enter the U.S. because an adult with legal status awaited them here.
This move, said Wendy Young – president of Kids in Need of Defense – left as many as 2,700 children and family members “trapped in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.”
The newest target is longtime residents who have lived legally in the U.S. under a program known as Temporary Protected Status. In the next few months, the clock is ticking for a large group of immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Haitian visa holders, for instance, were cautioned by federal authorities “to prepare for their return to Haiti in the event Haiti’s designation is not extended again.” In November, the administration made it official: It is ending the program for Haitians and Nicaraguans. The administration already had announced it would end the program for the Sudanese.
The administration’s moves have sent chills through the grower community, as well as the hospitality and construction industries. So far, though, there has been no movement in the Trump administration to pressure employers – just the workers.
However, employers are beginning to look at other hiring methods. Labor Department data show that in the first three months of 2017, farmers filed more than 4,400 applications to hire more than 69,000 guest workers through the H-2A visa program for temporary laborers. That was up by more than a third since last year.
At Victory in Praise, as the rapid response team was beginning to take shape, Schwanker saw the effort’s potential.
“Everybody should bring in another person and then another person,” he said. “We are going to have a big, strong train to have safety measures in place to protect our folks.”
And then he frowned. There really is no choice, he said.
“I have never seen it so bad in my lifetime.”
Editor’s note: The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit, receives funding from the California Endowment, which supports our coverage of stories affecting Californians. All editorial decisions are made independently; donors receive no preferential coverage and do not influence the direction or findings of our reporting.
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.