Fear of deportations swirls in state
Federal immigration roundups in the United States last weekend frightened immigrants and advocates across Massachusetts, but law enforcement officials said Wednesday that nobody has been detained in New England.
Chelsea’s police chief, Brian Kyes, said rumors of immigration raids in Greater Boston rattled the city all weekend. On social media, panicked immigrants posted unconfirmed reports of raids at East Boston’s Maverick Square, in Chelsea, and at Logan International Airport, but Kyes said there were no raids.
“There was absolutely nothing,” he said, adding that a top federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement official told him nobody was arrested in New England. Still, Kyes said, the rumors raged “like wildfire. It went all over the place.”
A federal immigration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the person is not authorized to speak on the issue, said agents searched for a small number of immigrants with final deportation orders in New England but could not find them.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has said that immigration officers arrested 121 immigrants last weekend, primarily in Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina, targeting a specific group of adults and children from Central America who arrived illegally after May 1, 2014, and had been ordered deported by an immigration judge.
“This should come as no surprise,” Johnson said in a statement. “I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed.”
Dozens of immigrants in New England and thousands nationwide potentially fall into those categories, according to figures from TRAC, a Syracuse University data research group, and the immigration courts, which are under the Department of Justice.
TRAC codirector Susan Long said immigration judges in Boston have ordered 263 parents and children deported in the past two fiscal years. That includes children who arrived without their parents. Long said it is unclear how many of those ordered deported remain in the United States.
Nationwide, thousands of unaccompanied minors and adult detainees with their children have been ordered deported, according to an immigration court spokeswoman, Kathryn Mattingly. Thousands of cases are pending.
Many immigrants were ordered deported in absentia, meaning they either did not show up for their hearing or did not know it was held, according to immigration court records.
Among them is 20-year-old Francisco Sosof Cumatz, a dishwasher from Guatemala living in Burlington in constant fear of deportation. He said he faces death threats in his homeland and had hoped to explain his case to a judge.
But his lawyer, Zoila Gomez, said he did not receive the hearing notice because he moved and updated his address only with ICE. He did not realize he also had to inform the Department of Justice’s immigration courts. The next time he checked in with ICE, as required, they attached a GPS device to his ankle to monitor him.
“At any hour they could take me away,” he said. “What can I do?”
Worried advocates called for a halt to the roundups and said they are mobilizing to protect immigrants.
Wednesday night, more than 150 people holding signs and lighting candles attended a vigil at the State House to protest the roundups. Afterward, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition planned to hold conference calls for immigrants, in English and Spanish. A national organization set up a hot line to report any raids.
Starting Friday in Boston, advocates are planning forums to educate immigrants about their rights in case of a raid.
Thousands of the immigrants are from Honduras and El Salvador, which have some of the highest rates of violence in the world.
“We’re deporting people to death zones?” said Patricia Montes, the executive director of Centro Presente, who organized the Wednesday night vigil. “I don’t understand it.”
In Massachusetts, advocates who once considered President Obama an ally grasped for answers about the deportation of parents and children.
Some wondered if Homeland Security was seeking to deter families from risking a dangerous border crossing. In the spring and summer of 2014, a surge of thousands of Central American migrants crossing the border ignited a fierce debate over illegal immigration.
After a decline, Johnson said, the number of crossings began to rise again in August.
Some advocates said they fear that Obama is playing politics, since the popularity of the leading GOP presidential candidate, Donald Trump, rose after he advocated deporting all illegal immigrants.
Obama had vowed to tackle the immigration issue in his first year in office, but his efforts were largely crushed. Though he granted work permits in 2012 to unauthorized immigrants brought here as children, hundreds of thousands of people have been deported since he took office.
“I think about how happy I was when he was first elected, and here we are seven years later,” said Sarang Sekhavat, federal policy director for the Massachusetts immigrant coalition. “It’s been a really miserable time for immigrants.”
Johnson said the enforcement operations would continue “as appropriate.”
Some hailed Homeland Security for the increased enforcement.
“We applaud ICE for finally beginning the removal of Central American family units that have been issued final orders of removal by immigration judges,” Roy Beck of NumbersUSA, a national organization that favors limiting immigration, said in a statement. “America is a nation of laws, but those laws are meaningless unless they are enforced.”
In Chelsea, where nearly half of the population is foreign born, the police chief said he hoped immigration officials had no plans to arrest families in his city, unless they are a threat to public safety.
“It would tip our community upside down,” Kyes said. “I would definitely not want that to happen here.”
In an earlier version of this article, the explanation of immigrants ordered deported in absentia made it appear as though court spokeswoman Kathryn Mattingly said that it was possible that an immigrant did not know a deportation hearing was held. That should have instead been attributed to the Immigration Court Practice Manual.