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North Carolina Educators and Parents Demand Safety for Undocumented Students

Tina Vasquez

Durham social studies teacher Tracey Barrett recalled to Rewire that a tenth-grade student once told her, “I know Donald Trump is racist against all Mexicans, but it really feels like he personally hates me.”

The morning after reports of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids in North Carolina, five Durham-based educators and three concerned parents attempted to enter the ICE field office in Charlotte to meet with assistant field office director Robert Alfieri.

As teachers of undocumented students and parents who are concerned about how detainments and deportations affect the larger community, the group of eight wanted to hand the director a letter requesting that ICE stay out of their schools and communities and not separate families, and urging ICE to halt federal prosecutions for reentry. Their attempt was made following Trump’s executive orders tightening border security and immigration restrictions.

“The executive actions on January 25th and 27th threaten the sanctity of our classrooms, as they promise to expedite the deportation of members of our community, vastly expand the range of individuals being targeted, and increase ICE’s collaboration with state and local law enforcement,” a draft of the letter addressed to Alfieri read. “These executive actions are likely to create a rise in the criminalization of our immigrant families, largely through the expansion of reentry prosecutions.”

In an interview in front of ICE’s Charlotte field office, Durham middle-school teacher Holly Hardin told Rewire the group decided to tell the security guards securing the metal detector at the entrance that they were there to pay an immigration bond to gain entry into the building. When asked by Rewire why they would not immediately disclose what their ultimate intentions were, Hardin said it was because of two reasons. First, they were initially denied a meeting with ICE that Durham Public Schools Board of Education member Steve Unruhe requested on January 26 on behalf of school board members, parents, and teachers.

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In an email to Rewire, Unruhe shared his correspondence with ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operation’s Atlanta field office, which is the nearest office for Enforcement and Removal Operations to North Carolina.

“On January 25, 2017, President Trump issued Executive Orders directing ICE’s interior enforcement operations under the new administration. ICE Leadership is in the process of providing guidance regarding the Executive Orders to its field operations programs,” the email from ICE read. “At this time, we are unable to commit to stakeholder briefings regarding ICE’s enforcement under the new administration given the high volume of requests we are receiving.  If you would like to submit specific questions for written response, we will review and respond as soon as possible after additional guidance is received.”

The second reason they didn’t say upfront why they were really at the office, according to Riverside High School teacher Ellen Holmes and the other educators, was based on previous interactions with ICE surrounding Wildin Acosta‘s case.

Acosta was detained on his way to Riverside High School as part of Operation Border Guardian. Under the immigration enforcement policy that launched in January 2016, those over the age of 18 who came to the United States as unaccompanied children after January 2014 were targeted in raids throughout the United States. Acosta became known as a member of the NC 6, a group of six undocumented teenage boys from North Carolina who were targeted under the operation. They were just six of an estimated 336 detained during the raids.

“When thinking about how to approach today, our past interactions with ICE were at the forefront,” Hardin said. “We’ve known them to be evasive and not forthcoming. Of course it’s frustrating to have to resort to these tactics. … So much of our work as teachers is about democracy, but we know that doesn’t always take shape the way we’ve been taught it does.”

The Durham Public Schools Board of Education has been an outspoken advocate for undocumented students. After the detainment of Acosta, the school board passed a resolution opposing ICE’s actions and the deportation of Durham public school students.

“In general, I believe, and the board believes, that our job is to educate children whenever and however they come to us. Children are generally innocent bystanders in the politics and economics of immigration, and many children today in Durham are refugees fleeing violence in their home countries,” Unruhe told Rewire in an emailed statement.

Led by Allison Swaim, who was first to enter the ICE building, Holmes and a formerly undocumented parent named Alexandra Vallardes were eventually let inside, using the same story that they were there to pay a bond. The women told Rewire that once inside, they revealed to ICE staff they were actually there to demand a meeting with Alfieri.

After about an hour of waiting, Swaim, Holmes, and Vallardes were told the director wasn’t on the premises. But a man who identified himself as an associate field director, though Rewire wasn’t able to independently verify his identity or position, agreed to escort the teachers out of the building and meet with the other members of the group waiting in the parking lot.

The eight women circled the associate director, tearfully sharing the trauma and anxiety the undocumented children in their lives expressed to them on a daily basis. There were stories of students petrified of going to school because they feared being detained on the way, as Acosta was. Stories of students whose parents returned them to their country of origin when deportation orders came down, to save their child from the “hell” of detention. Stories of children deported back to Central America and “certain death” this past summer.

On the campaign trail, then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump relied heavily on anti-immigrant rhetoric, and children were listening. Durham social studies teacher Tracey Barrett recalled to Rewire that a tenth-grade student once told her, “I know Donald Trump is racist against all Mexicans, but it really feels like he personally hates me.”

Barrett told the associate field director her students routinely express the fear that their parents will be deported, leaving them to fend for themselves. The associate field director told Barrett that ICE has “compassionate” officers who wouldn’t leave a child alone.

“That distinction brings no comfort to my students,” Barrett said. “My students can’t differentiate between a compassionate ICE officer deporting their parents and an uncompassionate ICE officer deporting their parents.”

The associate field director told the women gathered around him that he wasn’t in the White House and that he didn’t know how effective Trump’s executive orders would be, asserting that the primary way his office “captures” is through the 287(g) Program. That program is a “flawed and obsolete method of immigration enforcement” that deputizes “selected state and local law enforcement officers to perform the functions of federal immigration agents,” according to the American Immigration Council.

The group of eight expressed their fears of how enforcement would escalate under the Trump administration, including the possibility of ICE raids on campus. The associate field director told the women that things may change, but that ICE raids on school campuses have never happened before.

“That’s highly unlikely,” the associate field director said. “And I doubt it would happen. That would be very bad press.”

Before the group attempted to enter the ICE field office, Barrett discussed the idea of “bad press” with Rewire. Under the Obama administration, which deported more undocumented immigrants than any administration in history, bad press was a real threat to ICE. The agency could be shamed into releasing “low-priority immigrants,” such as students and parents with no criminal record, if for no other reason than to avoid headlines. Now, with an anti-immigrant president largely elected thanks to his xenophobic and nativist opinions, she wondered, what does “bad press” even mean?

“How do you shame a president and an administration that doesn’t find raids or mass deportations shameful, but rather something to be proud of?” Barrett said. “I think a lot of people are at a loss right now for what tactics to use.”

As Julie Mao told Rewire in a phone interview, there’s also the issue of the public not being able to hold ICE accountable because the agency uses deceptive practices. Mao is the enforcement fellow with the National Lawyers Guild’s National Immigration Project and is currently assisting on the cases of those who were reportedly detained by ICE on Tuesday at a checkpoint in Charlotte. Mao estimates that as many as five people were detained, though ICE’s spokesperson recently told a local publication that only two were detained and that ICE does not conduct checkpoints.

On social media, there were multiple accounts that ICE and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police were operating a checkpoint in Charlotte. This is something ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox denied to the Charlotte Observer.

Cox confirmed that a photo seen on social media of an arrest at Central Avenue and Kilborne Drive was real, but asserted that “no other departments participated” in the arrests and that the individuals detained “were not pulled over randomly”—statements that were in direct opposition to what Mao had been told. According to the ICE spokesperson, the agency was in search of two Mexican nationals, who were taken into custody on Tuesday “in accordance with the agency’s focus on criminal offenders and individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.” Both men had prior driving while impaired convictions in North Carolina going back several years.

Mao said that Cox has used these talking points to deny ICE targeting undocumented community members through the use of checkpoints “for years.”

“If you Google Cox’s name and the CARI program, which was piloted in New Orleans, you’ll see what I mean,” Mao said.

CARI, also known as the Criminal Alien Removal Initiative, began in the spring of 2012, purportedly to arrest and remove “criminal aliens” who pose a risk to community safety. In actuality, it served as more of a dragnet for undocumented immigrants, resulting in the deportation of those without criminal records. To carry out raids under CARI, ICE agents in New Orleans used mobile biometrics devices, allowing agents to collect fingerprints on-site. As an Al Jazeera report noted, these devices are similar to those used by the U.S. military during its “counterinsurgency” campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“CARI morphed into an aggressive initiative characterized by coordination between ICE and local police, and the use of mobile fingerprinting devices wielded against seemingly random groups of Latino residents,” the Nation explained in 2014.

Mao characterized what happened earlier this week in Charlotte as “intense” and “terrifying” for the city’s undocumented community. According to the National Lawyers Guild fellow, ICE set up near the Latin American Coalition office and was stopping vans, trucks, and other construction-related vehicles and interrogating drivers and passengers. She also said ICE was fingerprinting people in cars and on the street.

“I mean, this is what ICE does: It says these are not ‘indiscriminate sweeps’ and that they are doing ‘targeted enforcement.’ But these are basically checkpoints, especially with the use of these fingerprinting machines. What ICE actually does is use this one ‘targeted person’ they’re searching for as a way of targeting an entire area, making a huge amount of collateral arrests and taking a lot of collateral fingerprints,” Mao said.

The eight educators and parents who attempted to meet with Alfieri on Wednesday also wanted to discuss the Charlotte checkpoint with him, hoping to have a conversation about how interactions between local law enforcement and ICE affect their students’ communities. The women wanted some sort of promise from ICE prioritizing the safety of their students. The associate field director referred them—and Rewire’s request for comment on the raids—to Cox.

Cox did not respond by publication time.

“Even though I knew in my heart no one would promise our students safety, I still am disappointed that they wouldn’t offer anything—any protections,” Hardin told Rewire in an email. “No raids in schools, yes, but if a kid can’t even get to school because they or their family member or neighbor will be detained on the way there, then you might as well be denying education to our students.”

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