By Katrina Ruiz and Claudia J. Gonzalez
Image via El Minnesota de Hoy
MERCED, Calif. — The fear among undocumented immigrants and their families in and around Merced is palpable following the resumption of federal deportation raids last week.
That same fear is also helping to fan rumors across social media as people search for information on how to protect themselves and their relatives.
“It’s the worst feeling ever, seeing your husband leave for work and not knowing if he’ll return,” said Graciela, 32, of Los Banos, a working class community an hour outside Merced. Graciela’s husband is undocumented.
“If my husband were to be deported it would change mine and our children’s life in so many ways,” she added. “How do you explain to a 7 and 8 year old that their dad isn’t here anymore just because of his citizenship status?”
The first raids were reported on Jan. 4. Around 121 people were deported, mostly from Texas, North Carolina and Georgia. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the raids — announced before Christmas by the Obama administration — are targeting immigrants apprehended after May 1, 2014, have been issued a removal order and have no outstanding claim for asylum.
The Los Angeles Times reported recently that raids in Southern California had rounded up some 244 people over the course of four days. Among those who were taken into custody, 191 were from Mexico, while the remaining 53 were nationals of France, Peru, Ghana and Thailand.
ICE officials described the sweep as the most “successful” to date in the region.
Immigrant rights leaders, meanwhile, have criticized the raids as inhumane and hypocritical.
Others have taken to social media, alerting friends and contacts to appearances by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at Home Depot, supermarkets, and neighborhoods. Not all the alerts are accurate, however, helping to incite even more fear within communities.
Carolina Castañeda, 29, is an immigration attorney in Merced. She says her office saw an influx of phone calls from clients and community members seeking information following the raids.
“Fortunately, there has not been a lot of raids in the Central Valley,” she added. “The closest one I heard of occurred in Dinuba near Fresno.”
Still, Castañeda says the undocumented community must proceed with caution, adding that the scarcity of reliable legal resources available in Merced adds to the sense of confusion and panic.
“It is very important for our community to know their rights,” continued Castañeda. “If people get stopped, they should not say or sign anything, and need to ask to see an immigration judge.”
Castaneda also suggested using Facebook as a tool to stay informed and calling the media if they suspect ICE is in the vicinity.
“Everyone uses Facebook,” she explained, “so having a community group that will send out alerts and updates can be very crucial in these situations.”
More immigrants have been deported during the Obama administration than any previous.
In response, immigration advocacy groups set up support networks, including ICE Out of California. Established last year, the network’s goal is to help keep families living in the state together by informing undocumented individuals of their rights during a raid while also weakening links between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities.
Priscilla, 16, is one of them. The high school student says she lives in constant fear of being deported.
“My parents and I are undocumented,” said Priscilla. “If we get picked up by immigration, my brothers would end up all alone.”
Priscilla says the recent raids have caused her to develop insomnia. Sometimes she is hesitant to go to school.
“I know there are no raids in Merced, but that does not change my status, nor does it take away my fear.”
It’s a fear that families like Graciela’s share.
“I’m just working and trying to have a better quality of life for my family here and in Mexico,” explained Graciela’s husband. The 42-year-old came to the United States 15 years ago. The sole breadwinner in the family, he commutes daily to work in the Bay Area.
Asked what type of precaution he takes to guard himself from deportation, he replied that all he can do is “pray.”
For immigration related questions, you can contact the Law Office of Carolina Castaneda by visiting her website or calling (209)560-66-25.
To view a ‘Know your Rights’ Guide in Spanish, click here.