D.C. Activists Demand Mayoral Response to ICE Raids

(Photograph by Kip Dooley)

Aug. 20 at 9:00 a.m.

Local activist groups increased pressure this weekend on D.C. officials to fortify the city’s status as a “sanctuary city” for immigrants in danger of deportation.

Sunday marked the fourth consecutive day of protests organized by the Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America, at a Fairfax, Va. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Field Office. The office is used to process D.C. residents detained in ICE raids before they are sent to jails in Virginia and Maryland to await trial in immigration courts.

A group of about 35 protesters carried banners and chanted slogans like “no hate! No fear! Immigrants are welcome here!” in response to ICE’s recent “Operation Eagle’s Shield” raids, which led to the arrest of 132 immigrants living in D.C. and Virginia.

Protesters said that witnesses to the raids saw D.C. police assisting ICE officers, which would contradict Mayor Muriel Bowser’s assertion that she has instructed D.C. police not to collaborate with ICE. When asked for comment on collaboration with ICE, a Metro Police Department spokesperson said, “MPD does not ask about an individual’s immigration status.”

ICE raids under the Trump administration are part of a wider strategy to instill fear in immigrant communities, said protester Abel Pirhanu, a 24 year-old D.C. resident whose parents obtained asylum status in the U.S. in the 1980’s while fleeing political violence in Ethiopia. Under the Trump administration, he said, “people going through that process are being arrested in the midst of it,” referring to a recent case in Baltimore in which an asylum-seeker from the Central African Republic, who had lived in the U.S. most of his life, was detained and threatened with deportation after a routine immigration check-in. “That could have been my life story if I wasn’t lucky,” said Pirhanu.

A July 24 ICE news release said that the Eagle Shield raids targeted “violent offenders, gang members, sex offenders, fugitives from justice, and those who otherwise pose a significant public safety threat.”

The news release described 10 prior criminal convictions for those arrested, ranging from rape and felony assault to driving under the influence and forgery. Why the remaining 122 were arrested is unclear, said immigration lawyer Nick Marritz of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Falls Church, Va.  

Marritz said he and other immigration attorneys suspect that the raids violated the 4th Amendment, which protects individuals on U.S. soil from unreasonable searches and seizures. Based on client testimony and reporting by immigration advocacy organizations, Marritz said it has become common practice for ICE agents to coerce immigrants in the vicinity of a raid into “making enough incriminating statements to fill up the van,” when agents do not find the raid’s intended targets. Marritz said this practice would violate the 4th Amendment.

These kinds of practices are tied to the Trump Administration’s wider anti-immigrant agenda, said Cori Alonso-Yoder, the Practitioner-in-Residence at American University Law School’s Immigrant Justice Clinic.  “For a number of years, ICE had a policy of exercising discretion in its enforcement,” she said, “considering family unity or health and medical needs, long-time residents, or connection in the community.” Since the Trump administration came to power, she said, “everybody” without citizenship “is a priority for removal from the US.”

Tracking how ICE practices have changed over time quantitatively, not just through anecdotes or client testimony, is increasingly difficult, said Syracuse University statistician Sue Long, who runs the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan website that tracks federal enforcement and spending . She said ICE systematically withholds information to prevent watchdogs from discerning “who gets picked up, where were they picked up, their prior history, do they eventually get deported, and what happens in between.”

ICE has always made its data difficult to obtain, she said, but has become even more secretive since 2017.

The data is clear enough for the D.C. City Council, however, to continue enacting “sanctuary city” legislation, said Joshua Feitman, Director of Communications for Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd. Todd’s recently proposed bill that would protect undocumented immigrants against extortion already has unilateral support from the council, and the city’s 2019 budget will double existing funds for pro bono legal services for immigrant residents, to $900,000.

The D.C. City Council, Feitman said, is “using our pulpit to send a message that our neighbors are welcome here, that we absolutely do not agree with the federal government’s position, and we’ll do everything in our legal bounds to protect them.”

Activists at the ICE field office on Sunday said they want a direct response from the mayor’s office, not just proposed legislation. “Muriel Bowser allowed ICE to come into the city and kidnap our neighbors,” said Marge McLaughlin, a member of the Metro D.C. Democratic Socialists of America Steering Committee.

Until national legislation is passed to abolish ICE, said McLaughlin, the group will continue to risk arrest to disrupt ICE activities and bring greater public awareness to the issue. “We cannot let the consequences of fighting back against the status quo inspire fear,” Abel Pirhanu urged protesters from behind a bullhorn. 14 protesters were arrested for trespassing between Thursday and Saturday.

A coalition of advocacy groups will rally at City Hall to demand a response from Mayor Bowser today at 4 p.m., according to a Facebook event.

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