By Atiya Irvin-Mitchell
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
From New York to Los Angeles when President Donald Trump announced Immigration Customs Enforcement agents would conduct a series of raids feelings of worry and fear rippled through immigrant communities throughout the nation.
Although the promised raids appear to not have materialized, the worry lingers. Pennsylvania has a relatively small population of undocumented immigrants at 170,000 according to the Migrant Policy Institute’s estimation, but also of the country’s highest rates of arrest for the undocumented.
As the Trump administration doubles down on its zero-tolerance stance and murmurs of agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) approaching residents are spread on social media, despite Pittsburgh not being one of the cities originally slated for raids, its immigrant and Latinx community hasn’t been immune to the anxiety.
By necessity Laura Perkins has a phone on her at all times. As the emergency response coordinator for Casa San Jose, an advocacy organization for Pittsburgh’s Latino community, the calls she receives can be about anything from a runaway child to a death in the community to an ICE detention.
Usually, she said, the emergencies she’s called about pertain to ICE detention.
“We’ll lend resources depending on what the emergency is,” Perkins explained. “If it is ICE which is common we have an emergency response team which is comprised of spanish speaking volunteers and volunteer attorneys.”
If Casa San Jose gets the report fast enough, Perkins said, the organization will try to gather as much information as possible and provide services for the family members.
“Most of the time [ICE] detains males and often times those are the providers for the family,” she said.
This can create an inability to pay rent or purchase food for the family.
“We’ve been getting a lot of calls asking ‘what should i do if this happens’ and ‘have you heard anything’,” Perkins recalled. “We have been contacted by various allies with reports especially in the east end but it’s very difficult to confirm this because the department of homeland security doesn’t operate like police do.”
ICE was established in 2003 in the wake of September 11, under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security with the mission statement of promoting homeland security and public safety. Prior to that, those duties were handled by the INS–United States Immigration and Naturalization Service. In 2003, the duties of the INS were split between three new agencies: ICE, U.S. Customs and Border Protections (BCP) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). So, once where all immigration services–from were handled under one umbrella agency, the duties are now divided and Perkins says the only goal of ICE and Homeland Security isn’t safety, but investigation and detention. The agencies, she says, are often less transparent than police officers, making confirmation harder.
Perkins told the Pittsburgh Current that Casa San Jose has seen more ICE agents in Pittsburgh more than they ever had seen them in the past and with that presence comes fear among the community the organization serves.
“With increased ICE presence or especially with increased reports of ICE presence the community gets very scared obviously,” Perkins explained. “Even if they themselves have documents or they themselves have legal status they’re often fearful for their family members or neighbors. Also ICE agents are very aggressive in their tactics.”
Perkins pointed to viral videos of ICE agents forcibly dragging passengers from vehicles as an example.
“I can’t say that, that’s happened in Pittsburgh but people see those videos and when they see someone they suspect to be an ICE agent they get scared and they get nervous,” she said.
Familiarity of these occurrences has left many on edge. This, Perkins explained, can cause the members of the community regardless of citizenship feel the need to withdraw. For some people this can mean avoiding grocery stores, not signing children up for extracurricular activities, generally disengaging from community activities.
“Even if someone has their documents and are legally here being questioned by an ICE agent is traumatic,” Perkins says. The Los Angeles Times found that between 2012 and 2018 ICE had wrongfully arrested roughly 1,500 American citizens.
Locally the Pittsburgh Police Department has “no agreement, no partnership, and or contract with ICE, according to department spokesperson Chris Togneri. Katharine Kelleman, the CEO of Port Authority, went as far as stating during a board meeting that transit police had no policy of or the intention of working with ICE.
“Everyone riding with us deserves to ride with dignity and respect and not have to worry that this is the last trip they’re going to take from their family or with their family,” Kelleman said.
With regard to the Allegheny County Jail, according to a document shared by county spokesperson Amie Downs, the ACJ doesn’t detain any inmate or delay the authorized release of inmates as a result of detainer requests and or ICE administrative warrants. According to the policy, for example, “any inmate who has bondable charges upon admission shall be allowed to post bond to secure his or her release. An immigration detainer request or an administrative warrant shall not inhibit an inmate’s ability to post bond.”
The rights of individuals confronted by ICE agents can vary depending on the situation.
“If they are in a vehicle or in their house, they don’t have to open the door unless there’s a warrant signed by a judge which is extremely important,” Perkins explains. “If there’s an administrative warrant, which means it’s signed by an agent, they don’t have to open the doors, even if it has the name and address, if it’s not signed by a judge.”
The latter applies to cars and homes. If a person is walking on the street, they have no obligation to divulge their citizenship status. In the case of arrest by ICE agents individuals have the right to inquire why they’re being detained.
Casa San Jose has received frequent calls from community members wondering about what to do should they encounter ICE, Perkins says. But, one important request the organization asks regarding possible sightings of ICE agents that circulate on social media is that people err on the side of not sharing them. For example, a recent social media posts about possible undercover ICE agents approaching people on the city’s east side not on went viral on social media, but was also covered by some media outlets.
“If there is any suspected sighting of ICE in the area we ask that they don’t share on social media but that they rather contact Casa San Jose,” Perkins says. “It’s my job to respond to that and by resharing it on social media it just kind of plays into the hands of this administration that wants to sow fear in the community.”