Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Even “secure” households say they’re afraid of interacting with immigration enforcement, limiting their mobility and use of public space.
The warning that Immigration and Customs Enforcement planned to conduct raids in 10 U.S. cities came down on July 11. But no one knew exactly when, or in what numbers.
“Does ICE have the people power to go through all these audits and complete all of these raids?”said Gabriel Morales, an organizer with the New York City-based worker’s rights organization, Brandworkers United. “Who knows?”
It was Friday, July 12, and Morales was preparing the immigrant workers that Brandworkers represents for the unknown. He’d been conducting routine Know Your Rights workshops with members and their families throughout the year, but this week, Morales was having what he called “frank discussions” with the community, reminding them about the difference between an unannounced workplace raid and an I-9 audit. Either process could result in deportation, and he didn’t know which ICE would choose. “It’s ICE, and ICE is one of the least transparent institutions that we have in this country,” he said.
While ICE did make sweeps on July 13 and 14, only 35 arrests were reported, not the multiple thousands that officials claimed were being targeted. But President Donald Trump’s tweet and the subsequent scramble to adapt did have one intended effect: Immigrant families were scared. “It’s like a shock-and-awe process,” Morales said. “You just bombard people with all this stuff to terrify them.”
The parameters of this campaign of intimidation don’t begin and end on those weekends with planned immigration raids, though. Over the last several months, its impacts on the daily lives of immigrant families could be seen and felt in cities nationwide. In a Tennessee public school district, more than 500 kids were absent the day after ICE swept through the meatpacking district where many of their parents work. A Houston church that’s usually full of Latino worshippers found itself with emptier pews one Sunday. In California, a social worker described seeing a sign taped to a family’s front door at a child’s-eye-level bearing the warning: No abra la puerta. (“Do not open the door.”)
According to an Urban Institute report released this week, about one in six adults in surveyed immigrant families say that they or a family member avoided situations where they’d be asked about their citizenship status—routine acts like driving a car, renewing or applying for a driver’s license, or reporting a crime. Almost 8 percent avoided public places, like parks and libraries; about 6 percent avoided talking to doctors or teachers.
“If people are afraid to leave their houses or drive their cars, it threatens a lot of things: They may not be able to get to work; they may not be able to take their kids to school, or access medical care,” said Hamutal Bernstein, the lead author of the report, which draws on findings from a nationwide Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey of about 2,000 adults in immigrant families that was conducted in December 2018. “This dynamic can affect not only the members of those families but also the broader community that benefits from all residents having their basic needs met—being able to work, and being able to report crimes to support public safety.”
These findings build on another Urban Institute report published in May, which found that after the Trump administration proposed changes to the “public charge” rule—which would threaten the green card status of those who accessed government assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—one in seven adults in immigrant families chose not to access a “noncash benefit program.” This leaves qualifying low-income families without food stamps, housing assistance, or Medicaid, because they’d rather risk hunger or sickness than getting detained.
That suppression has cascading effects. Expectant mothers delay getting care. Sexual assaults and other crimes go unreported. Mobility can be severely limited, because drivers fear being ticketed for a traffic violation and being detained, leading to job loss and financial precariousness. That’s what happened to a West African man named Adom who sought help from a lawyer in the Vera Institute of Justice’s Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) network: A police officer pulled him over for a broken taillight; when he went to traffic court to challenge the fine, he ended up in a detention facility. “When one person—[goes] through what would seem like a very routine interaction, traffic court—their entire lives spiral,” said Annie Chen, the director of the Vera Institute’s SAFE Network.
Such fears also interfere with children’s education. In a report on the impact of immigration policy on children published in 2018, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) interviewed a California parent who didn’t send their kids to school for a week because they felt like they couldn’t drop them off. “I heard ICE was there,” they said.
A California Head Start director told CLASP that families stopped using the library, too. “They pick up the kids and they go straight home,” she said.
This enforced isolation has health effects that go beyond missing regular check-ups. Responses from the Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey indicated that one in five of respondents who said they or other family members avoided certain activities out of fear also showed indications they were experiencing “severe psychological distress.” That’s compared to only 6.3 percent of those who didn’t avoid them. (One limitation of the survey: It was only administered in English and Spanish, so immigrants who didn’t speak either of those languages were under-sampled.)
Though the survey can’t prove causation, these psychological impacts square with other research into how fear-based avoidance affects the mental health of immigrant children. “When children aren’t able to go to the library or go to the park, their quality of life is significantly impacted,” said Wendy Cervantes, the Director of the CLASP’s Immigration and Immigrant Families program.
This chilling effect—and the psychological trauma it can inflict—is most pronounced in households with members who are undocumented. “This sort of change in daily behavior is more prevalent in immigrant families that have a more vulnerable visa and citizenship configuration in the household—where basically there are foreign-born people in the household who don’t have a green card or naturalized citizenship yet,” said Bernstein. Of those families, one in three reported avoiding routine activities.
But there are signs that the administration’s fear campaign is also affecting “secure” households—ones where every foreign-born member of the family has green cards or are already naturalized citizens. One in nine adults in these households report restricted contact with public resources, too. “That suggests the ripple effects of immigration policies, and the generalized fear in immigrant communities,” she said.
Race was in some cases an even more powerful determinant of fear than documentation: Hispanic adults were three times more likely to report avoiding public spaces and governmental interactions than non-Hispanic white adults. This bolsters evidence that what scholars have identified as a “racialized legal status” can have detrimental effects on people’s well-being, regardless of technical legal status.
Such fears are hardly unfounded, given the Trump administration’s recent efforts to expand the expedited removal process, which withdraws people’s right to an attorney and a hearing, and could limit their chance to provide documentation at all. In Dallas, a young man who was born in the U.S. spent almost a month in ICE’s custody, the Dallas Morning News reported, before being released this week. Last year, the L.A. Times found that ICE had wrongfully detained another U.S.-born man for more than 1,000 days.
“This debilitating fear that we’ve seen amongst immigrant families over the past two and a half years has been this collective result of a range of policy attacks that have just increased the level of uncertainty,” said Cervantes. The cumulative effects of these policies is damaging, and so is their constant and ever-changing nature. “Even if it’s safe for you to drive today, it may not be safe for you to drive tomorrow.”
But there are ways to mitigate this culture of fear at the local level, immigrant advocates say, both by reducing the real threats of deportation and by educating both immigrant communities and those around them about what rights they have. Publicizing—and honoring—sanctuary city policies that prohibit local police cooperation with ICE is a start, Cervantes says. A total of 18 communities have signed on to be a part of the Vera Institute’s SAFE Network, which helps cities provide legal representation to undocumented immigrants.
The project is meant to “help normalize that this is something government should be doing,” said Chen: Just as the government must provide public defenders to those accused of crimes, it needs to offer attorneys to people facing detention and deportation. That can help expand trust in local government among their immigrant residents.
“When community members understand and see that their local government is providing them a service that protects their rights—tries to guarantee the due process and rights they have—we believe that will also translate to broader trust in institutions,” she said. “That translates to other benefits, too, like trust in police, trust in health care systems, and trust in schools.”