Just before dawn, sweeping searchlights and pounding on doors awaken terrified residents of a small village. Requests for warrants or official identification are ignored as squads of agents, some uniformed and some not, rampage through houses and rifle through personal belongs. Armed men bark orders and demand that cowering people produce their “papers.” Those who produce them are told that their papers are “not in order” and are detained, abused and humiliated. Finally, the agents depart, dragging a hapless father off in their custody, leaving behind his infant child alone in a dark and empty house.
Sounds like a scene from a World War II-era potboiler, designed to arouse righteous indignation over the depredations of Hitler’s Gestapo, right?
Wrong! These scenes were actually acted out on the morning of Sept. 24, as agents of the federal immigration enforcement agency, ICE, swooped down on the sleeping residents of Hempstead and Westbury, small villages here on Long Island, N.Y.
Similar raids were conducted in New York’s Nassau and Suffolk counties in the days following Sept. 24. A total of 186 people were swept up by ICE, leaving broken families and desperate relatives in their wake, but also generating a firestorm of criticism from residents and immigrant advocates.
The wife of a man seized by ICE was working at the time of the raid. She bitterly reported that the agents knew that her 4-month-old baby was being left alone when they dragged off her husband, but they didn’t care.
Nadia Marin-Molina, executive director of the immigrant advocacy organization the Workplace Project, said, “Raids that break up families are not the answer to immigration,” and that that the raids “create a culture of mistrust” and in the end drive more people underground.
A top Nassau County officials also criticized the raids. Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey complained that to gain cooperation of the Nassau police, ICE officials had mischaracterized the raids as targeting gang members, when in fact only three of the 82 people seized in Nassau County had any alleged connections to gang activity. He said the raids would actually impair the ability of the police to combat gang violence, since they damaged the relationships and mutual trust that had been carefully forged between the police and the community.
This was affirmed by Long Island Immigration Alliance Executive Director Luis Valenzuela, who said people will stop reporting crimes if they come to fear the police.
Mulvey said his department would only cooperate with ICE investigations that involved violations of local law, categorically refusing any cooperation in cases of alleged violations of federal immigration regulations.
The atmosphere of terror created by the raids was summed up by the mother of a U.S. citizen who was accused by ICE agents of having a fake U.S. passport, who said, “In El Salvador, it’s the death squads; here, it’s immigration.”
Gary Bono is a transit worker from Long Island, N.Y.