They drive American-made cars with heavily tinted windows. They hide behind dumpsters, or wait at neighborhood entrances. Sometimes, their work vans are mounted with construction tools. Since they don’t have mandated uniforms, they might be wearing civilian clothing or all-black gear that says “police.”
These are all tell-tale signs of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent going around a neighborhood, said Lelia, 25, who declined to give her last name because she and her family don’t have legal status in the U.S.
Before a small crowd in Plaza Midwood, the 25-year-old volunteer with Comunidad Colectiva, an immigrants’ rights group in Charlotte, explained what to do if they saw an agent: Don’t open the door unless someone has a warrant signed by a judge. Ask them to identify themselves by agency or a badge number.
After President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter last month that ICE officials would remove “millions of illegal aliens” across the U.S., conversations like the one Lelia had with a small group of teenagers and an elderly couple in a classroom at International House have become increasingly common.
Congressional and ICE officials announced a list of 10 cities last month in which agents would start detaining individuals and families with final deportation orders, including Miami, Atlanta, Chicago and New York City.
“The border crisis doesn’t start and stop at the border,” the agency said in a statement, “which is why ICE will continue to conduct interior enforcement without exemption for those who are in violation of federal immigration law.”
Charlotte wasn’t mentioned on that list of cities, but the plan, which Trump later temporarily pulled back from, nonetheless sent shock waves down the city’s immigrant corridors, where some — both with and without those final deportation orders — have altered their daily lives and practically gone into hiding to avoid a run-in with ICE.
Now, community activists are ensuring that they know what to do if that happens anyway.
“We’ve definitely been doing a lot of outreach, a lot of community work, canvassing,” Lelia said, “and going into neighborhoods, going into their living rooms — all the neighbors pile in — and we explain to them what their rights are.”
New policies, more fear
Heightened enforcement has been a common trend since Trump took office. Weeks after his inauguration, ICE arrested 84 people in a mass roundup across North Carolina. And in February of this year, agents picked up 275 people in one week alone — in a targeted operation they said came in response to changing sheriff’s policies.
Under Trump, ICE has also shifted its deportation priorities. Although the agency deported more people overall under Barack Obama, it was mostly focused during his second term on arresting unauthorized immigrants who had committed serious crimes.
Now, anyone living in the U.S. illegally is considered a priority for arrest — even if they have long lived in the U.S. or never had a run-in with the law.
Indeed, the total number of those arrested by ICE in North Carolina with no criminal convictions has more than quadrupled in recent years, according to data obtained by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Clearinghouse: That figure went from 203 in fiscal 2015 to 925 in the most recent fiscal year.
Still, Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesman, said that within North Carolina, “the day-to-day operations of ICE remain unchanged. The overall focus of the agency is first and foremost criminal offenders and public safety threats.”
But advocates say that fear and desperation has spread among many of Charlotte’s unauthorized immigrants — of which there are an estimated 100,000.
“People drive for necessity now, like my boyfriend,” said Ana Ortez, whose Guatemalan boyfriend overstayed his visa. “With (new legislation), the police can be ICE. You can be deported without doing anything wrong.”
Comunidad Colectiva member Rausel Arista, who helps the group operate a community hotline, said that worried calls have doubled since Trump’s tweets about the deportation threats. Over the phone, people have asked if it’s safe to leave their houses, if it’s better to drive at night, even if they can stop calling in sick and return to work.
“People are asking if it’s going to happen,” he said. “Despite what the president announced, they’re very scared. They don’t want to go out, they’re just shell shocked.”
One particularly jarring call, Arista said, came from a restaurant worker who had called in sick since Saturday, refusing to leave her house for fear that she would be stopped and detained. The woman had called to ask if it was safe to return to work. All he can provide is instructions on how to stay safe, he said.
Arista said that because many families are mixed-status, individuals who have some kind of additional protection, such as DACA, may have to bear more of the burden — including driving for those who might normally do so without a license.
“They’ve been the taxi, the Uber for the last week,” he said.
But Ben Snyder, an immigration lawyer, suggested that — besides fear — threats of increased enforcement had an unexpected silver lining of sorts.
“The immigrant community is becoming more knowledgeable, more savvy, and they understand their rights more,” Snyder said. “The community understands that that’s the MO of this administration.”
In a grassy portion of southwest Charlotte beside the airport, that understanding has proven useful.
Carol Bernal, the property manager at West Bloomfield trailer park, said that her majority-Latino neighborhood has operated a WhatsApp group to track ICE activity, or other unusual happenings, for about three years.
Federal agents have been known to make many of its arrests at dawn, as day laborers and other wage workers head out for the day. So normally, residents who leave early in the morning alert the group if there’s an unfamiliar car parked somewhere.
“That’s how it always starts. There’s a weird car outside,” Bernal said. “I started warning people, ‘Don’t go outside.’ This is private property. They can’t do nothing in here unless they have a warrant.”
In most cases, ICE officials have administrative warrants signed by ICE supervisors, however, those don’t grant entry into people’s homes. Only judicial, or criminal warrants, signed by judges allow officers to enter homes.
In her years managing the property, Bernal said that she’s never seen an ICE official with a judicial warrant. Once, a man she suspected was an ICE agent was in the trailer park and Bernal and another community member followed him until he left.
He said he was waiting for a person named Jeffrey. Bernal told him that she’d wait with him.
“There’s no Jeffrey here,” she said. “I’m the manager here, and I know everybody.”
Cox, the ICE spokesman, said that ICE conducts enforcement in accordance with federal law and agency policy. Just because they don’t make an arrest, he noted, does not mean they can’t — it may be more a matter of safety.
“Our goal is to effect and arrest as quickly and safely as possible,” he said. “In situations where we’re not able to, oftentimes our officers will make the operational decision to depart and arrest at another time.”
Learning their rights
In North Carolina, the sense of panic spread by Trump’s announcement has, for some, been compounded by policies being considered much closer to home.
Both the state Senate and House have passed HB 370, which would require sheriffs to cooperate with ICE officials or risk removal from office. Gov. Roy Cooper has called the bill unconstitutional, but it’s unclear if a veto of it would stand.
State lawmakers are also reconsidering HB 135, which invalidates the authority of community IDs to prove a person’s residency. It also would allow residents to file complaints if they believe their city or county is breaking immigration laws.
Organizers say that has added a greater incentive for groups to train the community — or for members of the community to educate themselves.
“We’ve all been starting to double up on our Know Your Rights trainings,” said Héctor Vaca, training and organizing director at Action NC. “We’re helping the community prepare in case something happens, but we’re also educating them about what their rights are and how to respond.”
Vaca and members of Action NC help Comunidad Colectiva run their hotline, sending people out to verify if strange activity is actually ICE.
“I’ve been known to take pictures of the license plates and have ICE confront me,” Vaca said. “They’re usually aggressive.”
In addition to hosting their own Know Your Rights sessions, Vaca said Action NC encourages community members to lead their own trainings to educate as many people as possible.
But even with the educational efforts, community groups and activists can only do so much.
At a Wednesday afternoon rally in Marshall Park, Lucely Gamboa and about 30 others gathered to protest HB 370.
“You think you’re prepared and that you know what to do if they stop you,” Gamboa said. “But when the moment arrives, you forget because of the panic.”