The presence of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Somerville last week revealed gaps in communication between the immigrant community and city government, according to local immigrant rights advocates.
On Aug. 5, ICE agents were seen stopping people at the Sullivan Square MBTA station and a Dunkin' Donuts on Broadway, feeding fears of a large-scale immigration raid.
ICE agents were in Somerville as a part of Operation Community Shield, which targets illegal immigrants who are gang members. The four-day operation took in 80 people with criminal records and open warrants throughout the greater Boston area, according to ICE. Among the arrested were 52 gang members, according to an ICE press release.
Somerville Police Chief Anthony Holloway said ICE agents took in one Somerville resident. The police department has not been informed of the person's identity.
After a rally held Aug. 8 at Vida Real Church in Somerville, pastor Luis Morales said city officials are not giving the community adequate information about ICE activities.
“We go to the authorities and they simply say that they know nothing, when I know that (ICE) has been here," Morales said. “I know ICE won't invade a city unless they get permission from the local authorities. So, to me, the local authorities are informed -- they just don't want to tell us.”
A press release from ICE lists Somerville among local police departments with which Operation Community Shield had been “conducted in partnership.” Holloway, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone and city spokesman Tom Champion said ICE did not work with Somerville police and that federal agencies do not need permission to operate in Somerville.
“If federal officials request the cooperation of police in any operation, obviously they cooperate fully,” Champion said. “In this case, they did not make that request. They merely notified us that this operation was going on.”
Somerville residents react
At the Aug. 8 rally, organized by the Somerville-based Latin American immigrant organization Centro Presente, several dozen residents gathered to express frustration.
“We are here today to denounce the operations, which are intimidating, militaristic and discriminatory,” said Patricia Montes, a Centro Presente community organizer. “We need an immigration system that respects the two principles of liberty and democracy under which this country was founded.”
Morales, who fled violence in El Salvador in 1980 and became a prominent community leader in Somerville, said he understands the desire of the federal government to deport criminals but their numbers are too small to justify the treatment of the entire immigrant community.
“The way the system is right now, they don't want us to drive. They don't want our kids to go to school,” Morales said. “The highest education you can get is high school, and after that you're dead. So what is this country doing? They are setting us up so that tomorrow the Latinos will be the failure of this country.”
Somerville resident Gonzalo Juarez addressed the audience in Spanish, asking ICE to stop the raids because they separate families.
“It's not about where we come from. It's a racial thing and it needs to stop,” Juarez said through a translator. “Our struggle will continue until the authorities will allow us to become permanent residents here and accept us as citizens of this nation.”
After the meeting, a group of Centro Presente volunteers posed for a Univision camera crew, each holding a letter to spell “Famil” -- with a letter missing to represent family members detained by ICE.
Curtatone said he sympathizes with illegal immigrants' fear of ICE but supports the attempt to capture criminals in Somerville who are here illegally.
“If you're in this city or in this country and you break laws, commit crimes, or are in a gang, I really have no sympathy for the tactics they use against you,” he said. “I want you out of this city-- regardless of your immigration status.”
Tito Meza, an organizer at the Somerville Community Corporation, maintains that the stress on the immigrant community created by any ICE raid is unjustified.
“People get really annoyed and scared," Meza said. “I don't think it's necessary and I don't think it's productive. What it does is create a situation of panic.”
Asked if ICE would respond to residents' concerns, Boston ICE spokeswoman Paula Grenier said the agency has attempted to reach out to immigrant communities.
“We've had meetings with the community to talk about how we do what we do,” Grenier said. “Our agency's job is to enforce the law.”