A rally against ICE in Columbia Heights on July 16, 2018, shortly after multiple arrests in the same neighborhood. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

A national nonprofit organization that advocates for South Asians living in the U.S. posted an alert on its website on the morning of July 8 that said a Columbia Heights Indian restaurant was raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and that several Hindi speaking employees were taken to the “Montgomery County jail in Maryland.” 

Later in the day, South Asian Americans Leading Together, or SAALT, removed “Columbia Heights” from the alert, widening the scope to “an Indian restaurant in DC.” SAALT employees were either not willing or not able to disclose the name of the restaurant they believe was raided. City Paper spoke with multiple Indian restaurant operators in D.C., including those whose restaurants are in the vicinity of Columbia Heights, and all denied coming in contact with ICE. 

ICE would neither confirm nor deny the raid in a series of emails. SAALT and advocacy group Sanctuary DMV both say they’ve spoken directly with people connected to the alleged raid.  

“Restaurants are hard because in these cases, they’re the heart of the immigrant community,” says Jennifer Amuzie from Sanctuary DMV, a local immigrant advocacy group that runs a hotline fielding calls from immigrants and community members who observe ICE raids. “This has a massive chilling effect. It says, ‘You can’t come here, this isn’t safe.’ … There is fear if they come forward.”

News quickly spread. SAALT and other activist groups such as Justice for Muslims Collective and Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) posted the information on social media on July 8 and 9. The announcement has been shared thousands of times across multiple social media platforms. One Twitter user, @qudsiaraja, posted a tweet requesting assistance that was retweeted nearly 4,500 times. 

This situation is unfolding as the New York Times and other media outlets are reporting that nationwide raids to arrest thousands of members of undocumented families have been scheduled to begin this Sunday. The Times cites two current and one former homeland security officials. Ten cities are named as targets, and D.C. is not one of them, but fear and confusion persist. The District has been the site of ICE raids in the past year. About three weeks ago, advocates confirmed that ICE detained two people in an alleged local raid, but ICE could not confirm the activity.  

Today SAALT provided a new, more comprehensive update, including a statement from a community member who the organization says is providing direct report to the detained South Asian restaurant employees: “Two weeks ago, nine South Asian restaurant workers were detained by ICE at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. Four were released the same day and the remaining five individuals were released at a later date.” 

Representatives from Montgomery County’s Department of Correction and Rehabilitation tell City Paper they do not provide ICE detention services. On July 9, they issued this tweet: “There is no truth to the rumor that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR) is detaining people for ICE after a recent alleged raid at a D.C. establishment. DOCR does not accept individuals into custody from ICE or detain individuals beyond their release date.”

ICE confirms that it does not use the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. The agency has memorandums of understanding with other counties in the U.S., but Montgomery County isn’t one of them, according to ICE spokesperson Justine Whelan

She notes that it’s possible that individuals could have been arrested by local law enforcement and ICE could have been called to the facility should the fingerprinting process have revealed that one or more people in custody were “wanted by authorities for immigration violations.” 

City Paper asked the spokesperson today whether ICE had records of detaining nine South Asian restaurant workers from a D.C. restaurant that serves Indian food, noting that local advocates insist this happened. “Officially, I can’t offer anything without additional info to research a specific case at hand,” she writes. “That is to say, I do still need names. We simply don’t haha [sic] sufficient information, and everything presented has been in vague rumor, at best.” 

“ICE lies all the time,” Amuzie says. “They’ve been given carte blanche to do so.”

As of December 2018, there were 2,644 people from India in ICE custody, according to TRAC’s Immigration project out of Syracuse University, which provides comprehensive data. SAALT’s statement today details that “South Asians are increasingly impacted directly by the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant policies,” noting that “there are over 600,000 undocumented Indians alone in the U.S.” 

With its initial posting, SAALT sought volunteers to help the detainees with outreach, translation, and legal counsel. More than 500 people responded, according to the organization. There is a training scheduled for Friday at 6 p.m.

City Paper asked the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington if the trade association had any advice for restaurant operators should they encounter ICE. President and CEO Kathy E. Hollinger says they have collaborated with local law firms to host industry roundtables and seminars focused on immigration rights, enforcement mechanisms such as ICE raids, residency options, and how restaurant operators can protect their staff and business.

“While we are not in the position to provide legal advice, we can help connect our members with specialists on this complex topic, and always encourage compliance with the law,” Hollinger says in an email. “An important piece of compliance is understanding the law and knowing your rights as a citizen and business.”

The National Immigration Law Center has a “Know Your Rights” card that can be printed off from its website. It details what to do if you are stopped by an immigration officer or the police. More information is available here. Sanctuary DMV’s hotline number is (202) 335-1183.