At about 6:30 a.m. on the morning of March 2, Ram Sahadeo* received a phone call from a friend. She sounded shaken. “There are officers here in my house,” she said to him. “They’re searching my place. They have a photograph of someone they want — I swear, it looks just like you.”
“It must be a mistake,” he thought. He spoke with the officer and gave her his address in Ozone Park, Queens. Minutes later, three cars pulled up outside, and immigration agents entered the house and took Sahadeo into custody, in front of his 3- and 5-year-old nephews, his wife Jan and her father. As Jan recalls, they didn’t show an arrest warrant.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” Jan remembers. “It felt like I was in a movie. They almost looked like bounty hunters.”
Seven months later, across the city in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Thomas Emmanuel was getting ready for work on a September morning when he got a phone call. The person on the line said they were an officer and wanted Emmanuel to come downstairs. He returned to the apartment a few minutes later with immigration agents in tow — they were wearing T-shirts marked “police,” his wife Rachelle recalls, and told her that they needed Emmanuel to fill out some paperwork and that he’d be back that afternoon.
Emmanuel kissed their two daughters, then 1 and 3 years old, goodbye before he was arrested. “Later that afternoon, he called and said, ‘They want to deport me,’” Rachelle says.
Sahadeo has been in the United States since he was 12, Emmanuel since he was 8. They are both now in immigration detention, fighting not to be deported to countries they haven’t seen since they were children.
After Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained 121 Central American families in raids carried out in the first days of 2016, immigrant communities across the country hunkered down. People stopped going to work, picking their children up from school and seeking medical services, as concerns about ICE being in their communities — substantiated and not — spread.
New York City officials, meanwhile, joined in the national outcry against the Obama administration’s targeting of refugee families in raids. “New York City cannot and will not turn its back on our immigrant communities,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said at a January 7 press conference in Corona, Queens. “Please know that we will continue to stand up for all of you.”
But city officials aren’t talking about the other raids ICE has been carrying out in New York City. In the last year, immigration lawyers and advocates have been increasingly hearing about ICE detaining people at their homes, in their neighborhoods and at or near courthouses, homeless shelters and supportive housing.
“The majority of the calls and the cases that we’re seeing are coming from home raids,” said Abraham Paulos, executive director of Families for Freedom, a Manhattan-based organization that fights deportations. Before 2015, Paulos said, between 80 and 90 percent of the organization’s hotline calls were about people being detained through contact with the criminal justice system. “It’s now more home raids than it’s been anything else. I would characterize it as an increase at an alarming rate.”
In early 2015, the city’s third round of detainer laws went into effect, forcing the shuttering of ICE’s office at Rikers and forbidding the New York City Police Department and Department of Corrections from detaining people at ICE’s request and notifying the agency about people’s release dates. The city’s Department of Probation also instituted a policy of noncooperation with ICE.
In a process that’s been under way since the first detainer laws were passed under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, ICE saw more limits placed on its access to potential deportees and continued to adapt. Immigration advocates and lawyers describe a pattern of ICE arriving at homes between 5 and 8 a.m. and using ruses to gain entry. ICE agents may first identify themselves as “police” or indicate that they need help with an investigation, which often gets them in the door. When they make their arrest, in some cases without showing an arrest warrant, they might tell the family that the person they’ve detained will be released the same day.
Advocates are quick to note that these are not the raids of Bush-era immigration enforcement — ICE does not appear to be doing sweeps of New York City buildings or workplaces or making collateral arrests.
But their tactics reveal the limitations of the city’s detainer laws and other “sanctuary city” policies. While the detainer laws disrupted the jail-to-detention-center pipeline, they did little to curb the data sharing and surveillance mechanisms that allow ICE to flag and find potential targets. ICE still receives fingerprint information when an arrest happens, has access to the DMV database and court hearing schedules, talks to people’s neighbors, school personnel and postal workers, and more.
“It’s very disruptive and scary,” said Nyasa Hickey, an immigration attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services. “Unfortunately stopping ICE transfers and some information sharing is just not sufficient to really protect our communities and keep the families of New York City safe.”
An Anguished Family
Sahadeo, 36, is now in immigration detention in upstate New York. He is from Guyana, and at the time of his arrest, he was in the process of renewing his green card.
“I feel helpless,” Jan said. It had been ten months since her husband had been home, and she was in tears. “I miss him. We’re a family, he’d do anything in the world for me.”
Sahadeo is a sewer line mechanic and has worked, ironically, on the sewers at 26 Federal Plaza, where ICE has its New York field office. More than that, as Jan recounts, he provides financial support and picks up medications for his elderly parents, shovels snow for his neighbors and is a loving uncle to his nieces and nephews.
Since his arrest, Jan, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Trinidad, has had to give up the lease on the couple’s small business storefront. It had long been her dream to open up a designer print shop, but she’s not able to make the rent by herself.
Emmanuel, meanwhile, is in detention in New Jersey. He is a green card holder from Haiti and makes his living as a driver. He and Rachelle are also the parents of two young daughters.
“The number one focus in his life is his children,” Rachelle said. “My daughter comes to me and asks, ‘When will daddy be home?’ It’s torturous for my kids to not have their father here.”
In the five months that Emmanuel has been in custody, Rachelle became a de facto single mother. She was forced to pull her eldest daughter, now 4, out of school because she could no longer afford it. Losing her husband’s income while picking up the costs of legal, commissary and prison telephone fees, she also fell behind on rent for their Brooklyn apartment.
In the eyes of the immigration system, few of these details matter. What is important is that both men have criminal convictions that qualify them as enforcement priorities for the Department of Homeland Security. Emmanuel, now in his late thirties, served three months for a drug charge when he was 21 years old. Sahadeo has two DUIs and a count of nonviolent attempted burglary on his record; he’s been out since 2008.
“They just see a person with a criminal record,” Rachelle says. “They don’t take anything else into account in terms of, is this person part of a family unit, and what’s going to happen to the kids, what’s going to happen to their partner. They don’t think about that impact.”
‘Felons, Not Families’
In November 2014, the same month that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the detainer laws, President Obama announced that the focus of immigration enforcement would henceforth be on “felons, not families.” His administration instructed enforcement agencies to focus resources on the removal of immigrants with specific criminal convictions, those who arrived after January 1, 2014, and those with prior deportation orders. The directives, known as the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), replaced Secure Communities.
These new rules also figure in the apparent uptick in home raids and community arrests in New York City. “It’s hard to say how much of the difference in ICE activity in the community is related to the detainer law versus related to the PEP priorities,” said Mizue Aizeki, deputy director of the Immigrant Defense Project.
Comprehensive information about the how and how much of ICE raids is scant. The agency is famously tight-lipped about its operations, and official data on these raids are not available — the Immigrant Defense Project, with the Center for Constitutional Rights, has been fighting the agency for information on home arrests since 2013.
It is telling, however, that almost 1.5 million people in New York City are non-citizens, while one in nine adults have been convicted of a crime in the last 10 years. This demographic makeup, according to Paulos, makes the city a prime target for ICE.
“A raid is a raid no matter what,” Paulos said, referring to city officials’ silence about the targeting of immigrants with criminal records. “Most of these folks are long-term New York City residents. And they’re also parents, they’re also children, they also deserve to be able to wake up with their families.”
*Pseudonyms have been used to protect the privacy of the immigrants in this story and their families.
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