"If you want a free trip to Tijuana, stop by Union Station." That's the smart-alecky text message a friend of mine received as news of an immigration raid at the historic Los Angeles Union Station spread like a stink bomb inside a crowded elevator. Through text messages, Tweets, Facebook updates, e-mails, and good old phone calls, it became clear very quickly that on this Friday, July 1, 2011, immigrants in Los Angeles had fully entered the 21st century technologically but in seconds could be terrorized by 20th-century immigration laws.
It was your typical Friday morning right before a major American holiday. The Fourth of July long weekend was upon us and travelers from throughout the Southland were gathering at the majestic Union Station, an awe-inspiring structure combining Dutch Colonial Revival Style architecture, Mission Revival, and Streamline Moderne style. Terra cotta and marble tiles aside, the station is a major hub (perhaps the only hub) for commuter trains, especially Metrolink. On a typical day, one can see entire families traversing the languid hall in the waiting area or gawk at thousands upon thousands of pensive men and women in business attire breezing past each other in an attempt to get out of the station. The place is certainly a multicultural microcosm of Los Angeles and the world.
The first text message came in at 9:15 in the morning. Other text messages and Tweets followed, like raindrops after cold wind, quiet but resolute. A local radio station, KPFK, had just interrupted its morning program to alert Angelenos that Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents were in the process of conducting a "check" inside Union Station. No more details were given, but they were unnecessary. The tolling of the bells from concerned members of the community, immigrant advocates, immigration attorneys, families and loved ones, even from an assemblyman's district office was almost immediate: beware, ICE and Homeland Security agents checking immigration status at Union Station. God save the commuters caught in the maelstrom.
Facebook, meanwhile, was abuzz with updates that pleaded others to be careful and to pass along. One after another, Facebookers formed a perfectly straight line ready to help their comrades avoid the ultimate punishment: deportation. On Twitter, the term "Union Station" was traded with such regularity that it became a trending topic!
A good media socialite, I tweeted and posted on Facebook; I even answered a few now-almost-defunct phone calls. Worried about the devastating impact an ICE raid could have, I contacted local media outlets and activated the ICE Raid Rapid Response Network, a community collaborative made up of immigration attorneys, advocates, and allies. Our immediate concern, of course, is always to ensure those detained know they have civil rights that need to be protected. Rights such as remain silent, not sign anything unless an attorney is present, request a phone call, and above all, not divulge information that could be damaging to a person's wellbeing. After all, ICE raids in public transportation hubs, work sites, homes, and schools are no longer uncommon and accurate, fast, and easy to understand information can help immigrant families and the general public.
By mid-day the dust had settled and accounts of the supposed-ICE raid were dying down. Reports from station vendors, church staff, witnesses, and reporters on the ground led us to believe that whatever had taken place in the MetroLink side of the station had not been immigration related. Full details have yet to emerge as to what happened and who exactly was at the Station this morning, but from what we can tell, the incident may have been nothing more than a routine security check by either federal marshals or transportation authority folks. We believe no one was arrested during the operation and the dogs seen sniffing around were not there to spot passengers wearing Mexican cologne. In spite of the relative comfort we felt after receiving the latest reports, we could not help but notice that even without a physical immigration raid, an assault on immigrant psyche had taken place all the same.
The silver lining in an otherwise disturbing incident is the fact that immigrants from all walks of life are using communications tools to alert their fellow brethren that something is afoot. If this had been an actual emergency, I hope the news would have traveled as fast if not faster. From Twitter to Facebook, to calling KPFK's hotline, to phone calls and e-lists, and good old mouth to mouth, I trust we will be there together to let the world know what is happening to millions under President Obama's watch. I trust we will also use the technology at hand to urge more members of the community to turn out in masse and become U.S. citizens, register to vote, vote, and engage in our nation's civic process. Otherwise, this weekend's scare will have been for naught.