Immigration forum seeks to allay fears
Local officials give Spanish-speakers advice on how to deal with federal agents
As the nation continues to debate its immigration laws, a handful of Spanish-speaking Mountain View residents came to St. Joseph church last weekend to learn more about the issue, and were given advice by local officials on how to deal with federal immigration agents.
The public forum, sponsored by Mesa de la Comunidad, brought together leaders from local police, education and health care agencies Sunday to address concerns such as the recent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and proposed immigration reform bills in Congress.
The attendees leaned forward in their plastic chairs while listening to a translator through headphones. Their biggest concern: What happens to my child if the ICE deports me?
School superintendents Maurice Ghysels and Barry Groves, who spoke on the panel, emphasized that their districts would never pass along a child's immigration status to any officials.
Ghysels, head of the Mountain View Whisman School District, said that in the event of a deported parent, the district would contact "everyone on the emergency card" and "bring in support services" to ensure the best placement for the child.
"If everyone on the card list is exhausted, we will work with Child Protective Services," he said. "If a child is placed in a shelter, we'll work closely with the surrogate parent to try to get that child back into our school."
Richard Hobbs, director of the county's Office of Human Relations, spoke to fears of immigration raids when he said that "the best advice is silence" if approached by an ICE agent. "Everyone in the U.S. has the right to silence as outlined in the Fifth Amendment."
Mountain View Police Chief Scott Vermeer, who introduced himself as the son of an undocumented Mexican immigrant, said his police department has "no role enforcing federal immigration laws ... unless the safety of the general public is at stake."
"Our primary job is to keep the community safe; that includes everyone irrespective of immigration status," Vermeer said. He added that "All emergency services are totally disinterested in immigration status; please pass along that info."
Concerns were also raised about the tactics of ICE agents. St. Joseph Pastor Bob Moran said the agents "aren't distinguishable from local police" since they wear the same gray jackets as police officers.
Vermeer said he met with ICE agents to address this concern, and was told that agents wear jackets reading "Police" because ICE isn't "generally a recognizable agency" while "'Police' is an easily recognizable word in every language."
Hobbs went further, saying that during the Redwood City raids, some ICE agents claimed to be local police to get immigrants to open their doors.
"If you live in California, you don't even have to give your name to an ICE agent," he said, adding that "No one is required to open their front door if there isn't a search warrant."
An immigration lawyer, Hobbs navigated a thick stack of papers as he outlined the tricky immigration reform proposals being considered by the U.S. Senate.
"Almost every immigrant's rights organization opposes the Senate bill," he said. The bill, he added, turns immigrants into "ping-pong balls" with "no right to live with their family, learn English, or establish themselves in the country."
Oscar Garcia, co-founder and president of Mesa de la Comunidad, said of the proposals, "Politicians have a hard time understanding them, let alone the average citizen."
He said the recent raids have undermined the Latino community and fostered "mistrust in government agencies" among immigrants. There have not been similar raids in Mountain View, he said, because Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren "made an agreement with ICE that they wouldn't do any large-scale raids in Santa Clara County." But he warned that this is "no guarantee."
Community member Rosa Sanchez said she found the forum helpful. "It's good to know more about how the laws affect the community," she said.
Mesa de la Comunidad is a community building and advocacy organization. For more information, call (888) 657-6801 or visit www.mesacomunidad.org.
E-mail Molly Stenhouse at firstname.lastname@example.org