Luis Sandoval, originally from El Salvador, became a U.S. citizen four years ago. He said the current national climate surrounding immigration has him worried and wanting to find ways to help.
“This is a nervous time,” he said the morning of Feb. 11 as he gathered with more than 20 other people at Plaza Fiesta. The group was part of a grassroots effort seeking to inform Hispanic and Latino immigrants living on Buford Highway about alleged raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, on the corridor renowned for its immigrant population.
“I heard about the raids and especially since they are so close to us, it’s scary,” said Sandoval, who lives in Atlanta. He said he currently has family members going through the process of becoming legal citizens and fears for their safety.
“I’m here because I want to do my part for the community,” he said.
The grassroots effort dubbed “Know Your Rights” was a direct result of news and a rash of social media posts last week claiming massive raids led to numerous arrests in several states including Georgia. ICE officials contend their agents were conducting routine, targeted arrests of those “posing public safety risks” such as convicted felons.
Many of the assertions on Facebook specifically claimed there were numerous raids at apartment complexes on Buford Highway and immigration activists. Posts on social media also stated ICE agents were arresting people at gas stations on Buford Highway as part of a crackdown following President Donald Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order directing the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize the arrests and deportations of undocumented residents with criminal convictions.
A local government employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity said there were four arrests in Brookhaven on Feb. 9 by ICE. All four individuals had criminal warrants against them and they were arrested at Park Towne North Apartments, the employee said. Park Towne North Apartments are located across from Northeast Plaza.
One allegation on Facebook states Oakcliff Elementary School in Doraville “notified several community leaders and attorneys in Atlanta about the police detaining undocumented people on Buford Highway across from Northeast Plaza” located in Brookhaven.
Oakcliff Principal Delores Paschall said that was untrue. “No, we have not,” she said Feb. 10.
ICE officials are denying they are conducting anything other than routine targeted arrests of residents here illegally and who have felony convictions and criminal warrants against them, the same kind of operations they conducted under President Barack Obama.
“There is so much rumor and speculation going on about random sweeps and that is not accurate,” said Bryan Cox, a spokesman for ICE’s southern region.
Cox was unable to say how many arrests happened in Brookhaven and on Buford Highway, but said in metro Atlanta last week there were about 30 people arrested. Approximately 200 people total in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina were arrested last week as part of targeted ICE operations, he said.
Cox said most of the approximate 200 arrested were convicted criminals wanted on charges including murder, robbery, assault and domestic violence. A more detailed report of where arrests were made is expected to be released Monday, he said.
Those arrested in Georgia are taken to one of three ICE detention facilities in the state: the Atlanta City Detention Center; the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, located about 188 miles south of Atlanta; or the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, about 150 miles south of Atlanta.
Major Brandon Gurley of the Brookhaven Police Department said he and the department were not aware of any specific ICE arrests in the city this past week.
“We have no idea,” he said in an email on Feb. 10. “We have not assisted ICE on any of their enforcement activities. We are aware that they have been in and around the city in recent days. But they have not asked for our assistance.”
In a Feb. 9 Facebook post responding to a rash of social media posts about ICE raids on Buford Highway, the Brookhaven Police Department acknowledged officers would help ICE if asked.
Cox acknowledged “given the current national environment” that when people now see an ICE team in the field there is “certainly a heightened interest.”
“But this is just a continuation of operations,” he said. “The suggestion this is something new is not accurate.”
He also said he believed certain groups are attempting to conflate ICE’s routine targeted operations with what is happening at the national level.
But he said it was “categorically false” that ICE agents were making random arrests and instead they were targeting people who they said posed a public safety risk, such as gang members.
Regardless of what ICE officials have to say, the people at Plaza Fiesta on Feb. 11 said they understood there is a real fear among immigrants.
“I’m a concerned citizen and I’m dismayed as hell at what’s happening,” said Vanessa Toro, who lives in Virginia-Highland in Atlanta and helped organize the effort at Plaza Fiesta with Marnie Bell-Ferguson of Lilburn.
Christian Rodriguez, 18, lives just off Buford Highway in Brookhaven, and also joined the group of people at Plaza Fiesta on Feb. 11.
“I feel like I need to help my community out,” he said.
But the concern about ICE raids and arrests is also very close to home for him.
His mother, born in Mexico, is undocumented and has had a pending felony charge against her for eight years.
The charge stems from a domestic violence arrest when she and Rodriguez’s stepfather got into a fight when he was a child, he said. His mother is working with an immigration attorney to find a way to get the charge dropped, he said.
“She pleaded guilty in DeKalb court [eight years ago] because they didn’t have a translator for her. She did it so she could get bailed out of jail,” said Rodriguez. “She’s had this charge pending since then.”
Rodriguez, a Cross Keys High School graduate, said he understands ICE agents are targeting people with felony warrants and believes they are likely seeking his mother to deport her to Mexico. He said his younger siblings, ages 8 and 10, know they are not to open the door to anyone.
“I know ICE is looking for those with felony charges, but the whole community is rattled,” he said.
After talking about strategy, including not knocking on people’s doors but only approaching people in parking lots, the activists at Plaza Fiesta broke up into groups, putting Spanish-speakers with non Spanish-speakers.
Teams then gathered up documents copied from the ACLU, United We Dream, Project South and the National Lawyers Guild about the rights immigrants have if confronted by ICE agents, loaded into cars and sought out apartment complexes and businesses along Buford Highway.
Bell-Ferguson, along with Samuel Buchanan, a Spanish major at Morehouse College; Heidi Lowe of Tucker; and Oglethorpe University graduates Mariah Emerson and Gabrielle Williams, who live near Tucker, drove to an apartment complex in Chamblee.
Bell-Ferguson and Buchanan approached a man with several children as he exited his car and Buchanan spoke to him in Spanish, letting him know about the rights he has in case of an ICE raid and who to contact should a raid occur.
The gentleman listened as his young son peeked from around the car. Because there were not enough papers to pass out to many people, Buchanan asked the man to take a picture with his cellphone of the papers they had listing numbers to call and websites to visit.
Emerson and Williams, who both speak Spanish, and Lowe talked to another man. Emerson said he was very receptive to hearing what they said and told them his entire family are legal residents, but many people in the complex were undocumented.
“We just want to let them know we are allies and we are rooting for them and to let them know they can be covered and safe,” Emerson said.