Immigrants jittery about federal immigration crackdown

ELKHART, Ind. (AP) — Since word started spreading late last month about plans by the Obama administration to crack down on undocumented immigrants from Central America, Elkhart County immigration attorney Felipe Merino has been fielding call after call.

“People are frantic right now,” he said Tuesday. “I have folks all over that are on the edge right now.”

Lisa Koop, an immigration attorney in Goshen with the National Immigrant Justice Center, said she has heard from clients, immigrants, who have been following proper procedure in their cases. Nevertheless, they’re also worried, fearing an unexpected knock on the door from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

“I think the community is absolutely terrified at the prospects of these raids,” Koop said.

“People are frantic right now,” said Elkhart County immigration attorney Felipe Merino. “I have folks all over that are on the edge right now.”

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson confirmed the initiative, announcing ICE agents had detained 121 people over the weekend, mainly in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina, and started processing them to be deported. Word trickled out before Christmas in a Washington Post article that ICE plans to launch a national campaign “to deport families who have fled violence in Central America.” The focus, the article said, would be on adults and children who already have been ordered deported by an immigration judge.

“At my direction, additional enforcement operations such as these will continue to occur as appropriate,” he said in a statement.

An ICE official contacted by The Elkhart Truth countered talk of activity by the federal agency in Elkhart County, which has a sizable population of immigrants and Hispanic people.

“ICE hasn’t conducted any recent enforcement activity in the Elkhart area,” the official said Tuesday.

But Zulma Prieto, editor of El Puente, a Spanish-language newspaper based in Goshen, said Tuesday she had received word that immigration officials had detained an Elkhart area man originally from Honduras. She was still sorting out the details.

And the jitters are strong. Many on Facebook were chatting late Monday about some sort of supposed operation involving ICE that led to the detention of a man at an apartment complex just south of the Elkhart city limits.

Turns out a man was, in fact, detained, but on drug-related charges, according to Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department records. And ICE was involved, but not necessarily Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Rather, the effort that led to the arrest was headed by a local law enforcement entity that also goes by the ICE acronym — the Elkhart County Interdiction and Covert Enforcement unit, which focuses on drug-related crimes.

“I can tell you that our guys, our ICE guys, were the ones that were primary on the arrest warrant, and it was their case that is filed,” said Vicki Becker, chief deputy prosecutor in the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s Office. The Elkhart County ICE unit doesn’t focus on immigration matters.

Despite all the nervousness, Merino said he hasn’t confirmed any cases of local immigrants facing detention.

Koop, though, said Immigration and Customs Enforcement representatives have identified “several hundred cases” across the Midwest that could be the focus of future raids. “We are very likely to see raids, if we haven’t already,” she said.

The focus of the stepped-up effort by federal officials is on a specific group — Central Americans, mainly, caught crossing illegally from Mexico into the United States who have exhausted all legal remedies in their efforts to stay and now face removal.

The biggest share of the foreign-born population in Elkhart County, which includes legal and undocumented immigrants, among others, comes from Latin America, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Most Latinos here have Mexican roots, with a smaller share from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, among other Latin American countries.

Koop said her clients are following proper procedure in their cases in immigration courts, presumably precluding them from being targeted in the new initiative. Merino said his clients, too, are in a similar situation, though that hasn’t stopped the hand-wringing.

“My clients are going to court,” he said. “They have me.”

The Michiana Immigration Coalition, a collective of numerous immigrant advocacy groups in Elkhart, Goshen and South Bend, has issued a sheet offering advice to immigrants worried about detention. If immigration officials knock on the door, ask to see a court order, the sheet states.

Prieto, the El Puente editor, referred to a flier on her publication’s Facebook page, created by immigration advocacy group United We Dream, that outlines a person’s rights and responsibilities when facing immigration officials.

“You don’t have to give any information,” she said.

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