Late last year, it was revealed that the Department of Homeland Security was going to step up pursuit of people with deportation orders. Arrests took place the first weekend of January; DHS has confirmed that 121 people were detained in those operations.
That may not sound like much compared to the estimated more than 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally. But the actions sent a chill through the immigrant community’s spine and started the rumor mill churning.
One of those communities is Langley Park, Md., a hub for Central American immigrants. That’s where I met up with Giovanni, at the parking lot of a fast food joint. There, he shows me pictures of his two sons, both U.S. citizens.
He says there’s a conversation he’s been having more frequently with his sister — a conversation about what he calls “Plan B.”
“I have a little money saved,” he’s told her. “The day I’m no longer here or something happens to me, I want you to give it to them.”
Giovanni — who also goes by “Chocolate,” a nickname he got back in Honduras — jokes that if he gets caught by immigration authorities, he might try to pass for African-American. He worries a lot more about getting picked up than he used to. He says he’s constantly keeping his ear to the ground.
It started the weekend of Jan. 2, when DHS stepped up enforcement nationwide. Giovanni’s phone started blowing up with calls from worried friends.
“‘Don’t come to Langley Park,'” he says they warned him. “‘They’re stopping people. They just have to see you looking Hispanic, and they’ll catch you and send you back.'”
DHS declined to be interviewed by NPR. In official statements, the agency says most of the arrests took place in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina. There haven’t been any confirmed arrests in Maryland. Still, a blanket of anxiety has fallen over this community.
“Obviously there is fear all over,” says George Escobar, one of the leaders at CASA of Maryland, an immigrant advocacy organization.
On Jan. 1, the organization set up a hotline to field people’s concerns about immigration enforcement. He says CASA received as many as 150 calls a day at first. Many of those callers claimed they saw DHS officers in the area, and “immigration officials knocking on people’s doors, entering into their buildings, immigration vehicles parked in very public spaces in the middle of the day.”
On the local Spanish language radio station, El Zol, host Pedro Biaggi asks what’s on everyone’s mind: “If the cops suspect someone with a deportation order is in the house, they can just come in, right?”
“No,” responds a CASA executive who is a guest on the program. In this country, he explains, authorities need a warrant.
Giovanni has heard all this. He knows he is not a high priority for DHS deportations. DHS is looking for recent arrivals, criminals and people with deportation orders. Giovanni doesn’t fall into any of those categories.
“It’s still scary,” he says. “Because I’ve heard of people getting picked up in Langley Park and taken. I’ve never seen an immigration police car or an immigration official. I’ve seen it on TV, but never live. I haven’t had the pleasure.”
The deportations shouldn’t be surprising, said DHS secretary Jeh Johnson.
“I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed,” he said. But those “priorities” will focus on “convicted criminals and threats to public safety.”
For many people like Giovanni, even if he is a low priority, the fear is still real.