As Deportations Increase, Trained Witnesses Hit the Streets

More than 1,000 San Franciscans have now been trained in observing ICE operations.

Apolinar Sanchez Cornejo, an undocumented immigrant in his late 60s, was getting into his car one September morning in 2015 when U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers pulled up and surrounded him. When the officers demanded to question him, he gave in — and was put under arrest, swiftly shuffled into deportation proceedings.

Cornejo had lived in Los Angeles since 1992. He had a prior deportation order but had committed no other crimes, says his granddaughter, East Bay resident Yadira Sanchez.

“They said they were looking for someone with a similar first and last name,” she says. “They caught the wrong person. But because they already had my grandfather, and he had a deportation order, they expedited it. There was no due process.”

Fortunately for Cornejo, Sanchez is involved with several immigrant-rights groups, including the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance. She was able to convince fellow activists to bombard ICE with phone calls and emails, and his story attracted media attention.

“We were able to stop the van on the way to the border and release my grandfather,” Sanchez says.

But not every deportee is lucky enough to have such well-connected family members. Because of this, immigrant-rights and social-justice organizations in the Bay Area are amassing volunteer allies to help fight an anticipated increase in deportations under President Donald Trump.

Sanchez says her grandfather is living proof that connecting citizen volunteers with undocumented immigrants can make a difference.

“It’s important for allies to stand in solidarity with undocumented communities,” she says. “People power does work.”

Earlier this month, a network of organizations working under the umbrella group Bay Resistance trained hundreds of volunteers on how to legally observe, so they know how to witness and amass evidence when ICE officers are conducting enforcement efforts.

Between that and other trainings, more than 1,000 San Francisco residents — along with 200 in San Mateo County and 30 in Oakland — have learned how to gather information that can help deportees seek justice. One of the trainers is Blanca Vazquez, the lead organizer with Immigrant Youth Coalition, an organization for undocumented queer and trans youth. Vazquez helps train people to become legal observers and works as a dispatcher for San Francisco’s new rapid-response hotline, where residents can report local ICE activity.

The system works as such: When a call comes in, the dispatchers send a legal observer to the scene to check the validity of the report and to witness what’s going on. Observers are told to stay out of the way and not intervene, even if ICE officers become aggressive with potential detainees.

“The sole purpose of legal observers is to document,” Vazquez says. “That documentation, whether it’s notes, video, or photos, can be used as evidence in court if people are arrested or detained.”

To help understand the legality of proceedings, trainees are taught about the Constitutional rights anyone in the United States has — whether they’re undocumented or a citizen. This includes the right to avoid self-incrimination and the right not to be subjected to an unlawful search. Legal observers are trained to look for and document violations of those rights, Vazquez tells SF Weekly.

The trained observers are also taught to take note of abusive or violent behavior on the part of ICE officers. They document how many people are detained, whether ICE officers are in uniform or are dressed as civilians, and are taught to make note of descriptions of the officers, including names and badge numbers.

All of that information becomes useful in court, says Luis Angel Reyes Savalza, an immigration law fellow with Pangea Legal Services. “If people’s Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights are violated, motions can be filed to dismiss the case. ICE routinely violates people’s rights. Legal observation can help substantiate in court what we already know happens every day,” he says.

Each year, roughly 1,500 people in San Francisco are detained by ICE and funneled through the deportation process.

Francisco Ugarte, the chief immigration attorney in the San Francisco Public Defender’s office, cautions that deportation proceedings can be quite different from criminal proceedings, with different standards for evidence.

However, the value of what legal observers do goes well beyond the courtroom. They can help create a “broad-based resistance for immigration rights,” Ugarte says. “As important as it is for immigration cases, it’s more important to resist raids and mass deportations. They can make sure ICE doesn’t overreach.”

The information gathered by legal observers can also help families quickly track down loved ones after they’ve been arrested but before they’re transferred to a far-away detention center, which can happen as quickly as overnight. And it can connect families with lawyers and advocates who can protect undocumented immigrants’ civil rights.

“Lawyers need to know in real-time who’s getting arrested, where, when, [and] who’s involved, so they can go to immigration and immediately begin working on representation,” Ugarte says. “They  can apply for a release of custody on the same day. This can be vital to helping someone stay in the Bay Area.”

So far, most of the calls that have come into the hotline have been false alarms, but a few have been valid. Vazquez wouldn’t reveal details of those calls, citing the confidentiality of the detainees involved, but ICE has been active in the Bay Area, particularly in San Mateo County, and seems to be focusing on picking up individuals who are already on the agency’s radar.

Ugarte expects ICE activity will ramp up under Trump, who has claimed he would deport at least 3 million undocumented immigrants from the U.S. In the process, immigrants-rights experts anticipate that ICE “will be compelled to violate basic Constitutional protections,” Ugarte says. “They will go to neighborhoods without warrants, knocking on doors, looking for people who are undocumented. They will go to workplaces and try to interrogate people.”

Spokespeople for ICE didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Close to 3 million people were deported under President Barack Obama. But during Obama’s term, ICE made a policy change in which fugitive operations teams stopped entering people’s homes without a warrant. Instead, they would wait outside and pick up targeted detainees on the sidewalk. Ugarte expects that policy to be reversed under Trump.

“We got a glimpse under the [George W.] Bush administration,” he says, referencing a time when massive numbers of immigrants were swept up. “Under Trump, it will likely be what Bush did, on steroids. They may go into the home, detain everyone, interrogate everyone, and arrest anyone who is undocumented.”

Vazquez says activists hope to expand the hotline, particularly in San Mateo County, and train more legal observers in the South and East Bay. Ultimately, the hotline is only one part of a longer-term project to help undocumented immigrants become less isolated, and to motivate citizens to work in solidarity with undocumented residents, she says.

“Undocumented folks are constantly living in fear at this moment,” Vazquez says.

Because ICE often prefers its enforcement activities to be a surprise, having a rapid-response system in place with hundreds of trained volunteers will be an excellent way to protect people, Ugarte says.

“We have a strong network of advocacy organizations that are deeply rooted in San Francisco and the Bay Area,” he says. “And they’re going to be ready.”

Beth Winegarner is a contributor at SF Weekly.

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