Immigrant rights groups are organizing a new network of neighborhood watch teams in California and elsewhere in response to threats by the Trump Administration of a deepening crackdown against those living in the country illegally.
Religious groups and migrant rights activists are training hundreds of volunteers across the country to be part of a Rapid Response Network, a sort of emergency reaction team whose purpose is to have observers document the arrests of immigrants, find them legal counsel and support them and their families as they navigate the court system.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, fears of massive detentions have increased this year amid reports that immigration agents are planning to arrest as many as 1,500 people who are in the country illegally. Agents earlier this month also delivered immigration inspection notices to 77 restaurants and other businesses in Northern California.
"The silver lining of this crisis is that all the outrage is turning into solidarity across race and class in our country," said Lorena Melgarejo, a community organizer with the San Francisco nonprofit Faith in Action, who helped launch the networks.
Melgarejo said more than 1,500 people have been trained in San Francisco and San Mateo counties alone.
Immigrants can call phone hotlines in many parts of the country if they are being detained by federal authorities. When someone calls to report a detention, volunteers are immediately dispatched to verify the report and if an immigrant is being arrested, they act as legal observers and offer moral support to their detainees.
Armed with notebooks and cellphones, the teachers, priests, retirees, tech workers and others have been trained to take notes, record video and take photographs during the detentions. They also learn about the basic rights of immigrants and how to stay out of the way of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
Hotline staffers post information about the detentions on social media and contact immigration attorneys who are sent to detention centers. Immediately providing legal advice ensures immigrants "are not summarily removed in the middle of the night without any witnesses from the community," said Sofia Corona, an attorney with the Los Angeles-based Immigrant Defenders Law Center, part of a rapid response network in Southern California.
"Many folks don’t know that unless there is a warrant with their name, they can walk away," she added.
ICE spokesman James Schwab warned against anyone interfering with apprehensions.
"Individuals who intervene in or seek to impede ICE officers while they are carrying out their mission recklessly endanger not only the enforcement personnel, but also the individuals targeted for arrest and potentially innocent bystanders," he said in a statement. "Those who engage in such actions run the risk of harming the very people they purport to support."
Immigrant rights groups first organized hotlines in 2008 during President George W. Bush’s administration, when worksite raids led to massive arrests. They went mostly dormant during the Obama administration, when deportations reached an all-time high but arrests were focused on criminals and people considered a threat to public safety.
Now, California’s rapid response teams are much more coordinated between different groups and include neighbors who can respond more quickly if a raid happens. They also accompany families to legal proceedings.
David Crosson said it was a visit last June to an immigration detention center near the border with Mexico that opened his eyes to the plight of people who are living in the United States illegally. That prompted him to volunteer.
"If I weren't doing this, I would be angry all the time," said Crosson, 69.
Crosson said he was once part of a group of volunteers who sent letters of support to a woman at a detention center awaiting deportation. When she went before a judge, she brought dozens of the letters and about 80 volunteers packed the courtroom.
The judge released her pending a trial because she had members of her community there, he said.
"We can no longer allow these proceedings to happen in the dark and we need to show immigrants they are not alone," Crosson said.