A rally against ICE in Columbia Heights on July 16.
A rally against ICE in Columbia Heights on July 16. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Last Friday evening attorney M. Lucero Ortiz said to a room full of immigrants from around the world, “Repeat after me: I reserve my right to remain silent. I want to speak to my attorney.” The attendees repeated her words in response.  

Ortiz is the director of legal services at the Central American Resource Center, or CARECEN, in Columbia Heights. The neighborhood has been an enclave for Central American immigrants for decades. She was standing in front of about 20 people who had come for a training on what to do if Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials come knocking on their doors.

It had been a tumultuous week. Eight days earlier, a building called Sarbin Tower—just blocks away from CARECEN—was the subject of an ICE raid. Advocates reported that ICE had come to take immigrants in at least four separate incidents in D.C., with a total of about 12 people detained.  

Courtesy Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Yesterday, ICE confirmed those numbers, saying that between July 9 and 20 it arrested 132 people in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia—12 of them from D.C. proper—in a mission the agency calls Operation Eagle’s Shield. “The enforcement actions taken during Operation Eagle’s Shield were conducted in accordance with routine, daily target operations carried out by ICE officers,” says agency spokesperson Justine M. Whelan. ICE declined to speculate on plans for future enforcement operations in this area, but provided City Paper with a tally of how many people it arrested from each jurisdiction in its recent push. 

ICE wrote brief biographies of a handful of its arrestees. “An El Salvadoran national who is currently facing criminal charges for felony strangulation; A Honduran national and illegal re-entrant with an outstanding warrant for two counts of felony rape, two counts of felony sodomy, and two counts of felony sexual abuse,the agency’s press release said. ICE did not specify which jurisdiction each of those it profiled came from, but Whelan reports that “examples of prior convictions” for those arrested in D.C., specifically, include “theft, grand larceny, DUIs, assault, and obstruction of justice.”

In the District, immigrants and advocates express fear of ICE itself. Hundreds gathered in Columbia Heights on the evening of July 16 to protest the agency’s activity in D.C.

“Family members and witnesses report that ICE agents indiscriminately detained people on the street, used racial profiling, and lied to get people to open their doors,” says Ben Beachy, an advocate with Sanctuary DMV, an organization that aims to protect area immigrants. Having had more time to speak with family members of those arrested, he says his group now believes that ICE detained as many as 18 people from the District during its recent operation.

“From the family members we talked with, these are stories of family separation in the District that have a chilling effect on our communities,” says Kelly White, an attorney and the director of the program for detained adults at Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.

A week after the raid at Sarbin Tower, Ortiz went there to offer residents a workshop on their rights, and information on how to respond should ICE return. “We had a large turnout,” she says. 

Ortiz reports that tenants there are scared, and confused as to what they should do if they really need the help of law enforcement officers or other emergency professionals. While the residents are memorizing exactly what to say and do if ICE returns, they are also worried about how to help their neighbors in the case of an emergency. Ortiz says that residents recalled a recent time when one of their neighbors died by suicide, and emergency personnel needed to go through someone’s unit to reach the victim.

The residents told CARECEN that ICE agents came to the building on two different occasions on July 12, “once at approximately 3:00 p.m. when they detained at least two people,” says Ortiz, and then again late at night. “Tenants report that ICE returned to the building the same day at 11:00 p.m., but they did not open the door.”

That’s what Ortiz advises residents to do in the face of ICE: not open the door, unless the agents slip a valid warrant under the door, signed by a judge and with the name of a specific person who is in the unit at the time the agents knock.

Last Friday evening, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s general counsel, Betsy Cavendish, joined Ortiz at CARECEN’s office to offer more people the same training the organization gave the night before at Sarbin Tower. “All of the services that D.C. provides, you’re welcome to,” said Cavendish. “The U.S. Constitution protects your children’s right to attend school, and we hope that your children will attend schools, use the parks, and use the pools,” she said. “We hope you report it if you are robbed or stabbed or a victim of a crime.”

Cavendish explained that D.C. police will not ask any person about their immigration status. After the recent ICE activity, some advocates claimed that the Metropolitan Police Department had assisted ICE in its arrests. MPD has denied that claim.

Audience members asked detailed questions: What if my landlord threatens to report me to ICE if I don’t pay extra in rent? What should I do if ICE comes to my job? What if ICE comes searching for a specific person at my apartment, but they’re not at home?

Ortiz went through the scenarios one by one, in English and Spanish. “Agents can be very nice and lie. ‘Just give me the information. I need it. It’s not you,’” she mimicked. “They can also be very mean. ‘I’m going to lock up your family.’” 

After running through all of the scenarios and answering all the questions, she gave one more piece of advice: “When you have an agent in front of you, it’s going to be hard to do this—when you have an agent staring you down.”