Photo by Alexa Mills
Photo by Alexa Mills

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Immigration and Customs Enforcement picked up and detained at least a dozen immigrants in D.C. last week, according to local advocates.

In response, hundreds of District residents plan to gather in Columbia Heights this evening to rally against ICE. A Facebook event invitation steadily drew committed attendees over the weekend. Just after 9 a.m. today, more than 350 were set to attend, and an additional 350 or so marked themselves as “interested.”

Advocates from Sanctuary DMV, an organization that aims to protect area immigrants and is one of the hosts of tonight’s gathering, and the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), together count four events in which ICE allegedly picked up and detained people in D.C. over the past week. Both organizations learned of the ICE activity when local immigrants and other D.C. residents notified them.

“What we heard last week were mainly eye-witness reports, like folks who had seen ICE vans picking people up off the sidewalk and at a restaurant,” says Jennifer Amuzie, a volunteer for Sanctuary DMV. Amuzie points out that many of Sanctuary DMV’s members live in Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant—neighborhoods that include a Central American enclave within D.C.

Kelly White also learned of the reports. She is an attorney and the director of the program for detained adults at Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. “We have names of some of the people who were detained and we will be meeting with them in detention centers in the next 9 days,” she says. CAIR provides legal services to detained immigrant men, women, and children in jails and juvenile facilities in Maryland and Virginia.

According to advocates, the most significant event happened last Thursday evening, when ICE agents apparently went to Sarbin Tower, a residential building on 16th Street NW just south of Park Road.

“On Friday, two community members came into the CARECEN office to report ICE activity at the Sarbin Towers on 16th Street,” says M. Lucero Ortiz, an attorney and the director of legal services at CARECEN.

Sanctuary DMV volunteer Ben Beachy, who has spoken directly with four family members of people who were detained last week, as well as his fellow community advocates, says that ICE detained nine people at Sarbin Towers. “They indiscriminately detained any undocumented residents they could find, from reports,” says Beachy. The story among advocates is that ICE went into the building looking for a specific person or persons, but shifted gears and took random undocumented people instead. Beachy says he learned that ICE picked up random passersby on the sidewalk near the building.

In response to City Paper’s specific questions about this incident and three others last week, an ICE spokesperson wrote in an email: “ICE regularly conducts targeted enforcement actions. I’d point out specifically that ICE does not conduct indiscriminate ‘raids,’ but don’t have anything more specific to share.” 

Ortiz says she is awaiting further information. “We don’t know the exact number of individuals, but it does seem like that was a much more general operation as opposed to a targeted search for specific individuals. We’re still waiting to get details on all of these things,” says Ortiz. CARECEN has a housing services program and a history of organizing at Sarbin Tower. She says that her organization is reaching out to residents to learn more.

Regarding the possibility that law enforcement went into the property looking for a specific person or persons, but left with others, Ortiz says: “That, unfortunately, is an MO. So it could be that it’s a targeted search for X, Y, Z individual, where they do have a warrant, and then they do a much more general raid on anybody who may look—basically just racial profiling of individuals that may happen to be in the area.” She does not yet know whether the events at Sarbin Tower fit this description.

A key unanswered question for some advocates, at this time, is whether arrests were made on warrants or whether ICE took and detained people at random.

Advocates report three additional incidents, each smaller in scale. Last Monday at a restaurant on 14th Street NW in Columbia Heights, Sanctuary DMV reports, a man was taken into custody while he was eating dinner at a restaurant. On Thursday, Ortiz says, CARECEN got a call from an affected family member regarding an incident near Capitol Hill. And then also on Thursday evening, according to Beachy, ICE entered a home near Georgia Ave. NW in Petworth and detained two men. ICE did not confirm or deny these events or the one at Sarbin Tower when provided with date and neighborhood location information.

“It really is out of the ordinary to have several operations all in the District over the course of several days,” says Ortiz. “That’s what is very very troubling—if all of those reports are correct, then yes that is very troubling.”

The gathering tonight at the fountain at 14th Street and Park Road NW is blocks from the Sarbin Tower.