On a summer-like evening, Alcides Roman walks down his street just off Vernor Highway, noting obvious changes in daily life in his Southwest Detroit neighborhood, pointing at houses along the way.
“You’ve got a Mexican family there, and they don’t come out. You’ve another family there, they’re not coming out, either,” he says. “And that family right there, they used to be all over the porch on warm days like this, and now you wouldn’t think anyone lives there. You barely see them driving down the street. You just don’t see them anymore.”
A wave of fear has gripped Southwest Detroit with this year’s uptick of immigration officials arresting and deporting undocumented residents. It’s rippling throughout the largely Mexican-American community and its impact is so deep it affects every aspect of life, including the local economy.
In what has traditionally been one of Detroit’s most thriving communities, with about 1,700 small and large businesses, the numbers of people typically strolling down main arteries, such as Vernor, Michigan Avenue and Bagley Street, has visibly declined. Area churches report offerings are lower. Not as many play soccer or relax in Clark Park, the area’s largest outdoor recreation site, shop or dine out.
“The community is striving, working hard and still sticking together, but a lot of them are scared and intimidated,” says Roman, a 50-year-old mechanic and apartment building manager. “I’m Puerto Rican, a U.S. citizen, but I show love and affection for all those around me. What’s affecting them is affecting me. It’s a domino effect.
A wave of fear has gripped Southwest Detroit with this year’s uptick of immigration officials arresting and deporting undocumented residents … its impact is so deep it affects every aspect of life, including the local economy.
“I’ve got real close friends that are documented and undocumented. When they go out to go to work, they come straight home. They are afraid to do so much as not wear a seatbelt. They don’t want to be victimized or their family broken…. You can see the fear on their faces.”
Fear and caution might mean holding off on buying new furniture, houses or cars. At Danto Furniture Show Room on Vernor Highway, owner Charles Danto says sales have slumped.
“It’s much slower than last year,” he says. “People are afraid to answer the door. They are afraid to walk the street.”
“The current situation has people not knowing what to do. If it were some authoritative, reliable source to say, ‘Here’s what the plan is moving forward,’ that would help.” – Bishop Donald Hanchon
Sergio Juarez, 25, says he’s an American citizen, but he also has limited movement in his Southwest Detroit neighborhood.
“I tend to stay close to home. I’m a bit more cautious,” says Juarez, a Ford Motor Co. design engineer. “Mostly, because I don’t want to end up in a situation, I don’t even jaywalk.”
Juarez is just as pragmatic about finding a site for a Ford-sponsored English literacy class, considering a school or church, which are typically regarded as sanctuaries from immigration officers.
Signs of caution are evident in Southwest Detroit’s faith community, too. Bishop Donald Hanchon, who oversees the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Central District, including Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park, says attendance is steady at predominantly Hispanic parishes like Most Holy Redeemer, St. Francis, All Saints and St. Gabriel – but offerings have decreased as much as 25 percent.
“People are giving less in the Sunday collection,” Hanchon says. “Most of them are still coming to church. They are just not giving as much. People are saving money, in case somebody is arrested and deported.”
Some parishes solely rely on offerings to meet monthly obligations, and are starting to dip into savings to operate, Hanchon says. The uncertainty is what he finds most disturbing.
“The current situation has people not knowing what to do,” he says. “If it were some authoritative, reliable source to say, ‘Here’s what the plan is moving forward,’ that would help. About a month or six weeks ago, President Trump tweeted ‘Only criminals need to be worried. Other people should not worry at all.’ Well, everybody is worried because, if that information comes in a tweet that’s not policy. That’s not a plan, and there have been arrests and deportations of people you wouldn’t think of as ‘criminal.’”
Conversely, nonprofit agencies are seeing record numbers of requests for documents, as residents prepare for worst-case scenarios.
Mary Carmen Munoz sees panic playing out at Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development (LA SED), a Southwest Detroit agency that has provided immigrants with legal assistance, English literacy and education for 52 years.
“I’ve personally been here for four years and I grew up a mile from here,” says Munoz, executive director. “I have never felt the hesitation and the fear in this community, as it has been for the past four months. It seems like it’s so much longer and it’s been rough.”
LA SED and other organizations have been hosting “Know Your Rights” information sessions, teaching residents not to open their doors to immigration officials without warrants. LA SED tells residents they don’t have to answer questions or identify themselves to officers acting outside proper procedure. The agency also helps clients plan for emergencies, in case they or a relative are deported.
“We’ve seen a 200 percent increase, a couple hundred people, coming in for power of attorney. Last year we had a couple dozen come in for that,” Munoz says. “…They are saying, ‘I’ve been here 18 years. I own my own house, but I’m not documented. What should I do?’
“It’s being proactive, and we should be doing that anyway, right?”
Immigration policies aren’t meant to instill fear, says Khaalid Walls, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), adding that stories of rampant raids and roundups are untrue.
“Our actions are targeted,” Walls says. “When we go out in the community we are looking for specific individuals who we have information on. It’s not some dragnet or some wild practice where we are just getting anybody.
“That’s not how it works. Nearly 70 percent of the people we arrest are people who, in addition to having immigration violations, are people who have been convicted of criminal offenses. That gets missed a lot of times in these conversations. One false rumor creates fear and panic, and it’s unfortunate because that’s not the way we do business.”
Jonathan Contreras, an immigration attorney at Servicios Southwest, says he tried to alleviate client concerns by sharing similar advice.
“At first,” he says, “I was one to try to calm people down and tell them, ‘There’s nothing to worry about yet.’ ‘Don’t worry. It’s just a traffic ticket.’ But we’ve noticed people getting arrested for showing up to court, not immigration court, just regular court. Since this new administration started, we’ve noticed people getting arrested or detained by ICE for things that previously would not have been of concern.”
He mentions a woman who was leaving 36th District Court and was detained by ICE agents waiting outside. Another man, seeking free legal help at the Southwest Detroit Immigrant & Refugee Center, where Contreras volunteers, was detained after an appointment with his probation officer, though he was only serving probation for driving with a suspended license.
“Everybody is a priority,” Contreras says, “and that is a concern.”
While sympathetic to parishioners and the community, Hanchon admits the law is clear.
“People who are living in this country and are undocumented don’t have a right to be here,” he says. “But the law has been overlooked for 20 or 30 years.”
SOURCES OF SUPPORT
With the shift in immigration enforcement policies, Juan Manuel Solana Morales, the consul of Mexico in Detroit, says it’s essential for people to know and understand their rights.
Morales and his staff provide resources for Mexican immigrants to become educated and empowered. Besides providing passports, Mexican federal identification cards, visas and other documents, his office holds a variety of workshops to help with finances and needs specific to Mexican nationals, non-Americans legally living in America.
But undocumented residents should prepare for the possibility of deportation, because his office typically can’t help when the process begins, Morales says.
“Please get prepared because, sooner or later, they are going to come for you,” he warns. “If you have been detained and deported before, they are going to detect you. If you are found, you are going to be deported under the new rules. It’s important we understand the laws as much as we can.”
If a Mexican national’s rights are violated under American law, the consul has a team of attorneys to assist. Even in cases of deportation, Morales says families don’t have to be separated.
“If you have a family, let the officials know you have a family. If you decide you don’t want the family to be separated, let them know,” Morales says. “We can help, and in extreme cases, we buy tickets to send the children to Mexico.”
Morales’ office tweets as much as 15 times a day and is distributing about a half million information packets around the state to help people understand the law and their rights.
If you or someone you know needs Hispanic immigrant-related legal assistance or support, here are other agencies to contact:
LA SED, (313) 554-2025, 4138 Vernor Highway, Detroit, 48209 www.lasedinc.org
Servicios Southwest, (616) 202-2779, 1981 Scotten Ave., Detroit, 48209 ssw.comcastbiz.net/contact-us
Michigan United, (877) 507-7774, 4405 Wesson St., Detroit, 48210 www.michiganunited.org
Central United Methodist Church, (313) 965-5422, 23 E. Adams Ave., Detroit, 48226 www.centralumchurchdetroit.org
Detroit Hispanic Development Corp., (313) 967-4880, 1211 Trumbull Ave., Detroit, 48216 www.dhdc1.org
Gesu Sanctuary Committee of Gesu Catholic Church, (313) 549-0421
ACLU of Michigan, (313) 578-6800, 2966 Woodward Ave. Detroit 48201 www.aclumich.org
Lead photo: Our lead photo by Kimberly Hayes Taylor was taken at a May 1 rally and march through Southest Detroit during the National Day to Protect Immigrants and Refugees