A crowd of several hundred took to the streets Monday to protest increased immigration enforcement in North Carolina — and the paralyzing fear they said it had instilled in Charlotte’s immigrant communities.
But even as they chanted “sin papeles, sin miedo” — no papers, no fear — while waving the flags of Mexico, Honduras and the U.S., many demonstrators said the feeling of terror they were out protesting had scared many more immigrants into staying home.
Speaking over a microphone at a rally in Marshall Park, Elver Barrios, an organizer with Comunidad Colectiva, said that he refused to be intimidated by a crackdown from Immigration and Customs Enforcement across North Carolina in recent weeks.
After Sheriff Garry McFadden reversed a policy that notifies ICE about the legal status of inmates in county jails, the federal agency said it had no choice but to increase enforcement activity in Mecklenburg County. Two weeks ago, ICE officers arrested over 200 immigrants living here illegally in a four-day span, as part of an enforcement operation they called a “new normal.”
“Every day we leave our houses to go work for our families, and this is how they repay us: Sending ICE to our houses, to our streets, to the places we go eat,” Barrios told the crowd in Spanish. “It doesn’t matter where we go. They’re there.”
March organizers had said last week that they hoped the rally would draw crowds in the thousands, much like the “Day Without Immigrants” protest in 2017 that stopped traffic in uptown, shuttered businesses and left classrooms half-empty.
But this year, only the enforcement that had a similar effect, as kids stayed home from school and Latino businesses along Central Avenue reported a loss in clientele.
Jessica Ochoa, 36, who is originally from Honduras, said during the rally that many mothers at her east Charlotte housing complex were afraid to step outside and take their children to the bus stop out of fear they could be detained.
And at the Mexican and Central American food truck she runs near construction sites in uptown, dozens of immigrant workers had told her that they feared the consequences of what might happen if they were to attend Monday’s protest.
“They said they would have been willing to come out and protest, but like lots of people, they were afraid that ICE would be at the march,” she later told The Charlotte Observer.
Still, Ochoa’s 11-year-old son and three friends showed up early. Each carried pieces of colorful construction paper with messages scribbled on in Sharpie. “I am Andrés, young, born in this country,” the sign read. “As a citizen I demand ICE no more hate, no more deportation.”
Under the controversial 287(g) program that McFadden ended, sheriff’s deputies would alert ICE about the immigration status of its inmates, meaning that much of the agency’s local activity was carried out in county jails.
But this month’s sweep saw a greater presence in immigrant neighborhoods, with officers conducting traffic stops in unmarked cars, wearing vests that identified them as police, or even posing as day laborers in Hendersonville, according to activist groups.
At a news conference earlier this month, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said this heightened presence was a necessary trade-off to arrest those criminals who would have been more easily detained under 287(g). He added that all of the agency’s officers wear visible identification while out in public.
On Monday, volunteers in yellow vests mixed in with protestors to act as lookouts for possible ICE activity during the march. But it wasn’t enough to draw a crowd like the one that took over Charlotte in 2017.
“The whole community is terrified,” said Margarita Baldovinos, 44, a Mexican flag draped around her shoulders as she pushed a stroller with her 4-year-old granddaughter, Sophia. “Everyone’s really in a panic.”
Ahead of false rumors on Facebook that ICE would be conducting raids during All-Star weekend, Baldovinos said she saw several women stock up on groceries for fear they would not be able to leave their houses during the raids.
For Leibi Cortez, 33, it’s a kind of paralysis that has made her think about moving back home to Honduras.
Cortez said her husband has twice been detained by ICE — both times while working construction in Lancaster, S.C., though he was later released on bond. Neither incident, she said, made her doubt she should stay in Mecklenburg County, where both of her daughters were born and raised.
But in January, Cortez’s brother was deported back to Honduras. He was detained at a court appointment after getting caught driving without a license.
That was what finally forced Cortez to sit down with her 10-year-old daughter and talk about what to do if the same thing happens to her. For now, though, it also brought her to the streets on Monday to protest.
“It’s unjust, what they’re doing,” she said. “They’re harming us.”