The immigrant community in southeast Baltimore has had its defenses up before, having been through the Obama administration’s arrests of Central Americans early last year.
But the latest round of arrests and the fear and anxiety over what’s to come under President Donald Trump has meant fortifying that defense with people like Kristie Graybill, who is, as she said, a white female who is largely immune from deportation.
Graybill is volunteering to join help immigrants, their families and community when Trump’s crackdown on immigration strikes in their neighborhoods.
She and some 150 or more people attended a training session organized by CASA, an immigration advocacy group, last week to learn how to witness and document arrests of immigrants, assist immigrants in asserting their rights during arrest, help get information and photos out on those who are arrested and help spread factual information about where ICE is conducting arrests.
“I’ve seen people torn apart and seen children come across the border who were in the third grade, that literally came alone,” said Graybill, a fifth grade teacher who is on sabbatical. “I am a white female and I will never, ever understand that. My daughter who is 7 years old, she’ll never get that. If I can use my privilege...aiding another person’s freedom, I will spend my life doing that,” she said.
The multi-city immigration arrests by ICE earlier this month touched off a wave of panic in immigrant communities around the country and sent advocates scrambling to sort fact from rumor.
Groups like CASA had already trained “defensoras” to help document arrests and gather details about where and how they were taking place, such as door-to-door or at workplaces. This month’s arrests strained resources, but also touched off a response among non-immigrants looking to help.
“To see so many people stepping forward especially for the immigrant community, to see so many people have their backs, that means so much right now,” said Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, CASA’s lead community organizer.
Katie Miller, an Open Society Institute fellow, has been working with CASA on food issues for the community. With Trump’s enforcement plans – which raise the risk of deportation for more immigrants – she said she had to shift to working with churches on their sanctuary movement.
Then, on Feb. 9, ICE arrested Manuel Lopez Suarez and Serbando Fernando, long time residents in the community. Their attorney said they had no criminal records beyond immigration violations.
Their arrests triggered interest in the sanctuary network, so CASA held its first “Bystander” training program, Miller said. At the training non-immigrants learned how to document arrests without getting arrested themselves or without interfering with law enforcement. They learned how to offer their language skills to help translate for immigrants being arrested. They are taught the rights of immigrants and their own rights, such as remaining silent. CASA hopes to hold more sessions.
Katie Long has been among those wanting to protect immigrants in her community. She is the Hispanic liaison for Baltimore Friends of Patterson Park. It is often filled with immigrants and their families, she said. Three are the parks Zumba instructors. Others coach soccer and have participated in organizing the increasingly popular Día del Niño celebration in the 155-acre park.
Long said she could see the fear and uncertainty on the faces of friends and colleagues who are immigrants and it moved her to respond.
“I really wanted to know what my role is if I see somebody being detained or being questioned” Long said. “At what point can I go and put my body in front? What is my role if they don’t speak English? Can I tell them what their rights are? Can I say, ‘Mantenga silencio? (Stay silent)? What can I do without putting them and myself at risk.”
Baltimore city police have made clear their officers don’t ask about immigration status. But the city has been trying to rebuild trust between residents and local law enforcement following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Part of Gray’s arrest was captured on cell phone video, helping to catapult the arrest into the national spotlight as has happened with other deaths of black men by police.
“We are a community still attempting to rebuild itself from last April’s uprising and trust with law enforcement is already thin and this just simply does not help,” said Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who described his district as one of the most diverse and international in the city.
Cohen said he has been approached about the ICE arrests by children and parents from the Latino community and by Muslim and African and Caribbean constituents.
“We’ve started to enter into a consent decree with the Department of Justice to reform our Police Department and when ICE behaves in a way that is predatory and preys on our most vulnerable community members it destabilizes public safety and creates anxiety among people who are living here,” Cohen said.
The White House has said its focus is on criminals and public safety. But the guidance to ICE agents, based on Trump’s executive orders, expanded who it considers a criminal and allows agents and officers wide discretion on deciding who they arrest and deport. Also, studies show that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the U.S.
After the ICE arrests in Baltimore, the largely Spanish-speaking children that Mayrejahlil Lanier works with at the Living Classroom Community Center told her of their fear. That got her thinking about how she could help and led her to the Bystander training.
The potential that they or their parents or someone they know could be picked up by ICE is an “overarching worry” for them, she said.
“It’s the same type of worry I feel if I’m driving and I see a police officer behind me,” said Lanier, who is African American. “It’s like a cloud, a hovering cloud.”