A Burnsville man balked at reporting a break-in to police for fear of landing on immigration authorities’ radar. In Minneapolis, another told his public defender he was afraid to show up in court. Across the metro, others fearful of run-ins with immigration agents avoid public transportation and places where Latinos gather.
As the Trump administration highlights plans to step up immigration enforcement — and national headlines capture early evidence of that shift — those living in Minnesota illegally are shunning interactions with government.
And in some cases, rumors that take on a life of their own on social media are fueling that retreat.
In this climate, immigrant advocates are trying to strike a delicate balance. They are hosting “Know Your Rights” seminars and urging immigrants to prepare in case they get arrested or deported. At the same time, they are trying to rein in hearsay and maintain trust in local law enforcement.
For now, the way immigration authorities do business in Minnesota hasn’t changed significantly: That’s the message from some immigration attorneys, the Mexican consulate in St. Paul and people such as Juan Linares, an advocate and manager of Mercado Central, a Lake Street marketplace where business slowed amid worries about an immigration raid.
“Fear is our worst enemy,” Linares said. “We tell folks, ‘Make sure you are living your life the way you always have. Don’t panic.’ ”
At St. Paul’s Mexican consulate, Consul Gerardo Guerrero says his staff is fielding more questions from Mexican-Americans about whether contacting police can get them in immigration trouble.
Mary Moriarty, who heads the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office, said a client recently showed up for a meeting with a busted lip and black eye. He told his attorney he was robbed of tip money and a cellphone after walking home from his restaurant job late at night, but he did not want to report the crime to Minneapolis police.
Felipe Illescas, who met the Burnsville break-in victim through his work as an immigrant rights advocate, says anxieties in the south metro ran high after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested nine in Apple Valley and Burnsville in February. People took to social media to say they saw police during the operations; police departments in both cities said they did not assist with the arrests.
In recent months, some local police officers have stressed they don’t do the work of immigration authorities, with St. Paul and Minneapolis officers recording multilingual videos that subsequently went viral.
While the Los Angeles police chief recently highlighted a drop in crime reporting by Latinos this year that he attributed to more muscular immigration enforcement, St. Paul has seen an increase over the same period in 2016.
“We want people to be calling us,” said Sgt. Mike Ernster, a department spokesman. “We want them to trust us.”
But Moriarty said that, amid news of stepped-up enforcement, mistrust can bleed into relationships with anyone on the government’s payroll, including attorneys in her office who have had to work harder than ever to build rapport with immigrant clients.
“Anything that’s related to the government, people are afraid of interacting with right now for fear of ICE lurking around the corner,” she said.
Moriarty said she hopes local court officials will join counterparts in California and Washington state who have called on ICE to refrain from courthouse arrests. Clients have been picked up leaving probation appointments, she said, and after a DWI sentencing in March at the Southdale courthouse in Edina.
An ICE spokesman said the agency does not track arrest locations, but courthouse arrests are not new. They usually occur after the agency has exhausted other options and often involve immigrants with serious criminal convictions, he said.
Generally, advocates say, immigrants without legal status are more mindful of the places they frequent — and how they get there.
As reports of ICE agent sightings on Lake Street in Minneapolis have ricocheted on social media, Mercado Central and other Latino-owned business have seen a “significant” drop in foot traffic and sales, Linares said.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents — who on occasion accompany Metro Transit officers during ticket checks on the light rail — have been mistaken for immigration officials, leading some illegal residents to stay off the trains, Illescas said. Others avoid driving and risking a traffic stop.
“People walk to church now, even when it’s cold out,” said Sebastian Rivera, a leader with the advocacy group Asamblea de Derechos Civiles. “This is not normal.”
Some immigrant advocates without legal status, who until recently have been outspoken in the media and lobbying state officials, have retreated from public view. Attendance at advocacy group meetings and protests is sparser, leaders such as Rivera say.
An enforcement shift is doubtlessly underway. Besides greatly expanding the government’s immigration priorities, the administration has pledged to hire 15,000 additional immigration and border agents nationally — steps applauded by supporters frustrated with the Obama administration’s narrower enforcement approach.
Deportations of people with community ties and no criminal histories in Indiana, Illinois and elsewhere have put immigrants on edge.
Immigration attorneys locally have seen more cases in which bystanders get picked up alongside immigrants whom ICE agents were looking to arrest. But all in all, they say, agents are still setting out to arrest specific people with pending deportation orders, and most are still immigrants with criminal convictions. ICE has pushed back against “dangerous and irresponsible” reports of random sweeps and checkpoints.
“Fortunately, for now here in Minnesota nothing has changed,” said Guerrero, whose consulate has handled a major increase in applications for travel documents and children’s birth certificates from residents preparing for possible deportation.
Advocates have tried to walk a fine line. They encourage immigrants to prepare power-of-attorney and parent authorization documents in case they are detained and deported. As part of an initiative by the group Isaiah, 17 churches and synagogues are ready to host immigrants facing deportations; some have installed showers and upgraded their kitchens. Groups like Isaiah and Asamblea are training volunteers to respond to ICE operations and document them.
Slowing the rumors
But advocates are also urging people to be more judicious in reacting to unconfirmed or inaccurate reports, such as a recent e-mail about a mass roundup at day care centers. Illescas and others are asking people not to share or retweet reports without fact-checking.
“You don’t want to cause fear in communities that are already fearful,” said Isaiah’s JaNaé Bates.
Maria, a Twin Cities stay-at-home mom who asked that only her first name be used, said she has made a point of sticking to her routine. She still drives her children, who are U.S. citizens, to after-school activities. She has dismissed warnings on social media that it’s risky to shop at Wal-Mart.
“I trust in God, and I haven’t changed anything,” she said. “So many people are afraid of something that hasn’t happened yet.”