A spike in families and children arriving at the U.S. southern border from Central America has prompted fears of another crisis like the one that dominated national news during the summer of 2014.
And a recent surge of deportations in Georgia, ostensibly to counter the influx of these undocumented immigrants, has raised suspicions among Latino immigrants in Gainesville and Hall County about the prospect of immigration raids on their homes.
“It’s real and it’s firsthand,” Lemuel Betancourt, a local businessman who ran unsuccessfully for the Ward 3 Gainesville City Council seat last year, said of the concern trickling through local immigrant neighborhoods.
About 42 percent of Gainesville’s population is Latino.
Betancourt said there has been lots of speculation about the raids. People he knows are limiting trips to stores and are afraid to answer knocks on their door.
On a recent afternoon, legal Latino immigrants expressed just how rampant such fears are in local communities.
“I think all the people have fear, mostly leaving their kids,” Gainesville resident Maria Calderon said through a Spanish language interpreter.
“I think it’s bad,” Angela Castraone said. “A lot of the people are getting scared.”
“The Hispanic community is embarrassed,” Santes Velasquez said. “We look bad that (law enforcement is) getting them out of their houses. I believe it’s not good.”
“All we can do is wait till they catch us,” Canido Savala said of undocumented immigrants. “We run but they still catch us.”
The number of Central American families and unaccompanied minors arriving at the border last fall more than doubled from the year before, according to the most recent figures.
The numbers could go even higher beginning in February and early spring, when border crossings traditionally increase, potentially eclipsing the levels that produced the 2014 crisis.
Such concerns helped prompt the Department of Homeland Security, with the close involvement of the White House, to initiate crackdowns on migrants in several states over the New Year holiday. It picked up 121 people for deportation, mostly from Georgia, Texas and North Carolina.
In some instances people were detained during surprise early morning home raids.
And it’s those raids that have caused concerns locally.
Arturo Corso, a criminal defense lawyer in Gainesville, said he got a call last week from a teacher at the University of North Georgia who told him several students had expressed concern about the raids and asked for advice in dealing with immigration officials.
“The people that are supposedly being targeted in these raids are people who already have an existing deportation order,” Corso said.
The fears are shared by legal and illegal immigrants, local activists said.
WHY THE FEAR NOW?
The 287(g) program is a federal initiative that trains local law enforcement officers in identifying undocumented people. The Hall County Detention Center entered the program in 2007.
According to the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, when an individual is arrested who was not born in the United States, the inmate’s immigration status is checked.
If the person is found to be undocumented and here illegally, the Sheriff’s Office then notifies the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency. A determination is made whether to place a detainer on that person based on immigration enforcement priorities like threats to national security and public safety.
Once the inmate concludes the case in Hall County, either by making bond or adjudication, he or she is taken to an ICE intake center in Atlanta.
The Hall County Sheriff’s Office is an authorized ICE detention facility through Homeland Security. Officials said they are allowed to house ICE detainees for up to 72 hours.
But cooperation with detainer requests and notifications of pending releases are strictly voluntary.
For many local Latinos, concerns about a possible immigration raid on their homes might be irrational. But for others, it’s an uncomfortable reality. Immigrant families could be split along legal lines when some members have resident status or citizenship while a sibling, parent, child or friend might be undocumented.
Even immigrants here legally can get caught up in the issue. Cristian Ramos, a student at the UNG Gainesville campus, was detained for 33 days in 2008 despite having a work permit.
ICE officers came to his home late at night and took him to the Hall detention center, then to immigration court the next day and finally to a jail in South Georgia.
“That’s where I spent the whole time,” Ramos said.
His first call was to his mother.
“She was trying to figure out what was happening,” Ramos said. “(Officials) never explained to me (why I was detained).”
Ramos said he thinks the mixup was a result of having been issued two different alien registration numbers (though he was unaware of this at the time), one of which did not properly indicate his legal status to live and work in the United States.
That clerical error may have been what led to the deportation order.
“I want to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Ramos said.
Being wrongfully locked up had a major psychological effect on him, Ramos said. He lost his job in the process, and only years later was able to stabilize his life and enter college with the support of a good family.
“It threw me into a horrible cycle, that thank God I was able to get out of it,” he said.
Ramos now has permanent resident status and is studying communication.
Then there’s the case of Jonathan Rodriguez, an 18-year-old American-born citizen who graduated from East Hall High School last year.
“Sometimes the law just breaks families apart,” he told The Times after his father, Eligio, was deported to Mexico last March following charges of driving without a license.
When his mother left to return on her own to Mexico to care for Eligio, who had health problems, Rodriguez and his younger brother were left parentless.
BORDER CROSSINGS UP
ICE officials prioritize deportations based on perceived threats to national security and public safety, but many immigrants fear these priorities could change in an instant.
According to ICE, the number of apprehensions by U.S. Border Patrol of those attempting to cross the southern border illegally decreased to its lowest number since 1972, with the exception of one year.
There were 331,333 apprehensions from Oct. 1, 2014 to Sept. 30, 2015.
But that number is ticking up again. ICE has averaged about 14 flights per week returning mostly single adults to Central American countries.
And it’s become an enforcement priority to deport a greater rate of adults who enter the country illegally with children.
That means the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that has extended some protections, including work permits and exemption from deportation, for immigrants brought to the country illegally when they were young, is not being extended to new arrivals.
“I know there are many who loudly condemn our enforcement efforts as far too harsh, while there will be others who say these actions don’t go far enough,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson said in a recent statement.
“I also recognize the reality of the pain that deportations do in fact cause. But, we must enforce the law consistent with our priorities. At all times, we endeavor to do this consistent with American values, and basic principles of decency, fairness and humanity.”
Many Central American immigrants are fleeing gang warfare in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the same countries whose violence and instability forced women and children to make the dangerous trip north two years ago, overwhelming U.S. facilities and producing disturbing images of frightened children huddling in Border Patrol facilities.
Administration officials say they are better prepared than they were in 2014 for a new influx, including increased capacity to house children. They have stepped up advertising in Central American countries to warn of the dangers of the trip and point to $750 million in a year-end spending bill to help those nations.
White House officials said the tactics are in line with new deportation policies outlined by the Obama administration that prioritize criminals and recent arrivals. All those targeted had arrived after 2014 and had exhausted their legal options.
“Our desire to make clear that individuals should not embark on the dangerous journey from Central America to the Southwest border, that’s a case that we’ve tried to tell in a variety of ways,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. “It was only after individuals had exhausted the legal remedies available to them ... was a decision made to remove them.”
Such explanations fall flat for advocates like Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.
“We won’t get any advance notice,” Gonzalez said. “No one does. I know metro Atlanta has been targeted but has since gone silent — for now. We have been sharing ‘know your rights’ information with members of the (immigrant) community.”
Latino students at UNG have been sharing advice on social media about how to deal with immigration officials in an encounter, including urging immigrants, legal or otherwise, to remain silent, report raids and make sure a signed warrant is delivered before allowing officers into homes.
Corso said that while education is critical, he wants to calm some fears, lest some immigrants move back into the shadows they have only recently walked out from.
“People should really try and keep their fears in check,” he said. “I want to get that word out there. People should not be afraid to work. People should not be afraid to go to school, or take their kids to school, or go to the hospital or call police for help.”
Charles Olsen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.