Oscar Ramirez and Thermon Brewster walked out of the Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church just before 7 a.m. — when those who sleep at its homeless shelter must leave for the day.
Outside the church in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, Va., U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were waiting.
As the two men and others crossed the street toward a shopping center on Feb. 8, about a dozen ICE agents ordered them up against the wall of a grocery store, questioning them about their immigration status. According to Ramirez and Brewster, the ICE agents then indiscriminately arrested seven of the homeless men — all of them Hispanic — and packed them into a van full of other detainees.
ICE tells it differently: An ICE official said officers approached the group, questioned them about a “potential target” and arrested two men, including a legal permanent resident of the United States. Both had been identified in the shopping center parking lot as “criminal aliens amenable to removable”— meaning deportation.
The U.S. government said the series of ICE raids last week netted at least 683 “criminal aliens,” the first major immigration enforcement wave under President Trump.
The reports of seemingly random arrests, of ICE agents appearing during the day outside schools, shelters and apartment blocks, have sent a palpable wave of fear through the nation’s immigrant communities.
“I have never seen the immigrant community, both the lawfully and unlawfully present, with a greater amount of fear than I have in recent weeks,” said Faye Kolly, an attorney in Austin.
On Thursday, the agency’s top officials traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress, some of whom had requested a briefing on the immigration enforcement actions.
“It was hard to not leave that meeting and believe that the Trump administration is going to target as many immigrants as possible,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), who attended the meeting.
ICE has arrested at least one DACA recipient during the raids. ICE says the man, Daniel Ramirez Medina, is a gang member.
Virginia State Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) accused ICE of engaging in “Gestapo-style” tactics that amount to racial profiling. Some immigrants have been locking themselves in their homes, wary of opening their doors for any visitors; others have kept their children out of school or stopped showing up at work.
In Austin, where immigration officials detained more than 50 people, news of “raids” quickly spread through immigrant neighborhoods after a bystander captured cellphone video of one of the first detentions and shared it on social media.
Carlos González Gutiérrez, Austin’s consul general of Mexico, visits ICE detention centers each day to provide legal support and interview Mexican nationals held in detention. On a typical day, he said, he talks to between one and three immigrants who have been detained. When he arrived last Thursday, he found 14 Mexican nationals in custody. On Friday, there were 30.
A government social worker for Durham County, N.C., said that the number of Hispanic residents seeking assistance had dropped off rapidly in recent days amid swirling rumors about an ICE checkpoint at a Durham intersection and ICE agents making arrests in a supermarket parking lot.
“Today, I haven’t gotten one Hispanic client in the entire check-in today,” said the social worker, a longtime government employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. “That never happens … They think that when they come here for assistance, that they’re going to be on some sort of invisible list.”
Rumors of raids and checkpoints — which ICE officials have denied — have residents of Virginia’s immigrant-rich Culmore neighborhood on edge. The cluster of apartment buildings off Route 7 in Northern Virginia house hundreds of immigrants, many of whom do not have legal status.
One resident, Ulises Martinez, said neighbors are furiously exchanging text messages about officers with dogs stopping people on street corners, but none of those reports has been confirmed. When his neighbor, a teenager, came by and knocked, Martinez asked who it was. The cheeky teen responded saying “Me” in Spanish and half-joking.
But Martinez was serious.
“Who is ‘me?’,” he said, peering hard through the dirty peephole.