A resident at an apartment complex in southwest Memphis peeks out to listen to volunteers doing Know Your Rights information sessions in 2017. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity was high in Memphis neighborhoods that summer and pushed the need for organizing work around communities affected by these raids. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

Federico Gómez Uroz was awakened by the ringing of his cellphone early one Sunday morning last fall, and on the line was a man in distress. 

The caller said agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement were at his house, claiming to be looking for someone, and asking him to open his door. The father of three said he didn’t know the man the agents said they were looking for, and he didn’t know what to do. Through the storm door, the caller had asked the agents for their paperwork, but they’d refused. 

His voice cracked as he spoke, and soon Gómez Uroz could hear banging – a battering ram, the man said.

Don’t open the door for them, Gómez Uroz told the man. Don’t run. If they ask you any questions, don’t answer them. Tell them you want to speak to a lawyer. If you’re arrested and someone from your family isn’t, tell them to call back. 

Gómez Uroz never asked the caller whether he was documented, and he never volunteered that information. Nonetheless, Gómez Uroz quickly ran through the man’s rights and asked for information – his name, address, how many people were in the house – and stayed on the phone with him for about 10 minutes until the agents left without entering the house.

Gómez Uroz, who is a permanent U.S. resident originally from southern Spain, ended the call, then typed up notes to have a record of what happened.

A family reads over immigrant rights information at a community meeting at a church in Berclair in 2017. The meeting was organized by a coalition of volunteers. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

The incident was the “most intense call” Gómez Uroz has logged as a dispatcher for Vecindarios901, an organization that rapidly responds to suspected ICE activity in the Shelby County area. The organization’s dozens of volunteers across the county travel to incident sites to observe, document and, as they deem necessary, intervene. 

ICE activity is down now because of the coronavirus pandemic, but a founding organizer of Vecindarios901 (“neighborhoods” in Spanish and the local area code) is apprehensive about what can happen before President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20, and does not have full confidence in Biden. 

Organizer Maria, whom MLK50: Justice Through Journalism agreed to identify by only her first name because of the sensitive nature of her work, estimates the group received over 200 calls reporting possible ICE activity between August 2019 and March 2020. Then, just as nearly every other sector of the country ground to a halt in early March, ICE drastically scaled back its operations, which under the administration of President Donald Trump had previously been expanded. Reports of ICE activity to Vecindarios901’s hotline slowed to a trickle, then stopped.  

In recent weeks, however, ICE has resumed raids nationwide, especially targeting sanctuary cities. On Oct. 16, ICE arrested more than 170 people in Seattle, Denver, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. The agency has also begun implementing a plan to fast-track some deportations without a hearing in front of a judge. Vecindarios901’s most recent report of ICE activity was in mid-October, Maria says.

Maria is not optimistic about immigration reform under Biden, who has said he’ll nominate Alejandro Mayorkas as head of the Department of Homeland Security. Mayorkas is a Cuban immigrant who served as deputy secretary of homeland security and director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services under former President Barack Obama. If confirmed, he would be the first Latino and the first immigrant to head the department.   

Maria does expect Biden will reverse some of Trump’s executive orders, moves Biden has included as part of his immigration platform. But when Biden was vice president, Obama’s administration deported more people than under any other president. And, she notes, Trump is still in office until January.

“If Donald Trump were to try something in these last couple months that he has, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Maria said. “I wouldn’t be surprised at him trying to make one last push for more deportations or [a] higher intensity search for undocumented migrants.”

A spokeswoman for ICE declined to comment on the agency’s operational presence in Shelby County. The agency also doesn’t track arrests in Memphis, she said, but between October 2018 and September 2019, the most recent data available, ICE arrested 9,831 people in the southern region, which is headquartered in New Orleans. The area includes Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. 

A grassroots rapid-response model

A volunteer speaks with a family about immigrant legal rights after an event at a Berclair church in 2017. Programming to educate communities affected by increased ICE activity expanded throughout the years of the Trump administration, partially due to volunteer-led events like this one. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

In 2018, Gómez Uroz and a handful of other Memphians who’d volunteered with other grassroots immigrants’ rights organizations conceived of the informalized bones of Vecindarios901. It originally included a Google Voice number and used Facebook posts to communicate reported ICE activity, something Gómez Uroz estimates they did a couple of times over a few months.

But it wasn’t until August 2019 that the organization started to coalesce into the rapid response organization it is now. 

Maria had spent time in Colorado, and when she returned to Memphis, she brought with her a grassroots model she’d learned while volunteering with the Colorado Rapid Response Network, a statewide initiative that uses a 24/7 hotline to track ICE activity.

Vecindarios901 has remained a decentralized model, with a core group of 10 to 15 operations members who handle the hotline, apply for grants, lead training sessions and keep the group organized. 

Hotline calls are routed to one of a handful of dispatchers on duty who use their personal cellphones and try to glean as much information as possible. They get the location, time and description of vehicles, and disseminate that to the organization’s pool of confirmers and legal observers. Those volunteers who can respond notify the dispatcher when they’re on their way; Maria said on average the rapid response time is between eight and 15 minutes. 

The jobs of confirmers and legal observers overlap, but the basic goals are to watch, determine the involved agency and document any incidents. Confirmers frequently arrive to see agents sitting in vehicles, Maria said, and they might spend the whole time trying to outwait the agents. 

When they can, they approach officers to determine whether the agency actually is ICE, whether agents have a warrant, and if they do, whether it’s signed by a judge.

Documentation is key 

Before the pandemic, Joni Laney, one of the original organizers, would respond as a legal observer or confirmer to one to two calls a week, usually in the morning. 

“I’m pretty old so I’m not good with technology,” said the 67-year-old former English teacher. “But I am a body and the people who are being targeted know that when we’re standing out there that we are there for them and that we are witnesses. And that we will document and we will go to court and we will do what they need us to do, nonviolently.”

Dispatchers communicate with the caller and the confirmers, relaying information through texts. They take notes on the incident, and if necessary, keep the caller calm. Dispatchers must be bilingual in English and Spanish, while confirmers and legal observers don’t have that requirement. 

Perceived whiteness can be useful for confirmers, whose job often is to politely confront law enforcement, Laney said. Officers more often feel threatened if approached by a person of color, according to studies, including a paper published this year by Columbia Law School. 

“A lot of our volunteers who do that work are white. It’s really helpful because we can train volunteers to use [their] white privilege, use [their] white concerned citizen voice,” said Maria, adding it often helps to deescalate the situation. 

Sometimes confirmers determine the agency isn’t ICE, and Vecindarios901 spreads the word through Facebook that rumors of activity aren’t true. They do the same when they confirm ICE activity, to keep the community informed.

Hopes for expansion, and disbanding

Vecindarios901 received a small grant from Resist, a nonprofit that distributes funds to grassroots social justice organizations, which was used to purchase computers and other technology support, as well as printed materials.

More money and volunteers are needed to expand the organization’s reach, including possibly adding a bail fund for civil disobedience actions, Maria said, adding, “Right now our main priority is to make sure nobody gets arrested.”

Additional volunteers could staff a localized response in communities across the city, and the operation of a 24-hour hotline, Maria said. Volunteers aren’t active during the night now, though Maria said she always monitors the hotline.

But the dream, paradoxically, is to not be needed, said Gómez Uroz. 

“I hope one day the immigration regulations change, the laws change and adapt to the reality of what this country needs, which is immigrants.”

Hannah Grabenstein is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

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