At the end of December, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would being rounding up Central American immigrants for deportation. This past weekend, the raids began, with parents and children being detained in military-style operations in several southern and border states. Fear has spread through immigrant communities around the country.
As a professor of migration studies at Stony Brook University who has researched consequences of immigration policies for over a decade, I have followed news of this initiative closely. But I am also an Anglo mom of two on Long Island, in a town with sizeable communities of Latino immigrants, many of them from Central America. I speak Spanish, so I talk with Latino immigrants, I listen, I ask. And this is what fear looks like in my town.
Sunday afternoon, my kids were playing with some kids in the community, blowing off end-of-holiday break steam. Suddenly, one boy said to me, "Miss Nancy, did you hear that they are stopping people on the streets, and taking them away? Whole families. My mom was crying, she's so scared." I called his mother. She came to Long Island 13 years ago, and while her husband has papers, she does not. Their kids are U.S. citizens. Yes, she said, word was out that ICE was in our town, setting up checkpoints on the roads, knocking on doors, walking through stores where Latinos shop. Everyone was staying home, terrified.
According to local media reports, no raids have actually occurred on Long Island yet, but ICE's actions in other states have fueled rapidly spreading rumors. While the Department of Homeland Security says it is targeting recent arrivals who have exhausted all legal avenues to stay, the raids have disrupted daily life for anyone without papers and their families.
These raids don't just create fear, they create barriers. The Latino mom said, "I can't do anything now." All fall she had been walking to a nearby church three times a week for English lessons, and proudly testing out her new language skills on neighbors. But now, she's too scared to continue. "My husband says I shouldn't even go to the kids' school, not even for the concert coming up, we can't risk it." It's not just people without papers who are pushed away - it's their kids, who live in fear that a parent could be taken from them. These kids are my kids' friends, their classmates, they learn together, construct our future world together.
DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson proclaims that these raids and deportations are necessary to deter new migration, framing it as they are going after people "who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security." But as a researcher of immigration policy, I know that there are a number of false assumptions and buried truths in the DHS's detain-and-deport strategy.
First, this strategy doesn't actually work to deter immigration. The idea is that word of the raids and deportations will spread in immigrant origin countries, and those thinking of coming to the U.S. will realize it isn't worth it. Seven years ago in the South American country of Ecuador, I interviewed recent deportees from the U.S. Over 50% said they were going right back to the U.S. Those Ecuadorian deportees faced poverty and debt if they stayed in Ecuador. Central Americans today face not only extreme poverty, but also gang-related violence amidst corrupt and ineffective government. Many parents know that they and their children are likely to be forced into gang activity or killed. The idea that those faced with such a choice will choose to stay in such situations is ludicrous.
Second, detaining and deporting immigrants is big business. Company owners and corporate boards are making huge profits, more than delighted by this initiative. A vast network of private and county facilities have become dependent on ICE money. There is a 34,000 per day bed "quota" mandated by the federal government, and in contracts with detention facilities ICE promises to feed them a certain number of detainees. And a lot of the components of detention are contracted out to private companies - food, phone, medical, transportation, you name it. Companies big and small make money from - and lobby for - initiatives such as the current one. Detention is set up to make it incredibly difficult for immigrants with legitimate claims to fight their deportation.
Third, the violence and chaos reigning in Central America that drives the current immigration surge is a direct result of U.S. policies. For decades, we have pushed trade and economic development strategies that make Central American countries dangerously dependent on global financial markets and impoverish the populations. We have supported corrupt leaders whether or not they were democratically elected, and trained militaries that massacred their own people while we looked the other way. The U.S. gang members we started deporting to Central America over a decade ago set up transnational gang organizations, and have gradually been taking more and more control from already weak governments. It is these U.S. exports - poverty, gangs, instability - that Central American immigrants are attempting to flee.
So, this current detain and deport initiative won't stop the immigration we are largely responsible for, but it will make healthy profits for those banking on it. And it kills immigrants' and their children's attempts to become part of local communities. In my town, immigrant parents aren't walking their kids to the school bus stop, shutters are drawn, life feels on hold. These raids don't just impact immigrants who have sought refuge in the U.S. in the last year or two. They terrorize families across the country, ensuring that they can never really "arrive." Even if they have been here for decades, even if kids and spouses are citizens, even if they want nothing more than to settle in and build a life.