All photos (unless otherwise noted): Pixabay
All photos (unless otherwise noted): Pixabay

Coffee and fear: An American story

One of the workers at the coffee shop I stop at every morning looks up at me, worry etched on her features. “What have you heard about the redadas?” she asks.


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May 19th, 2022


One of the workers at the coffee shop I stop at every morning looks up at me, worry etched on her features. 

“What have you heard about the redadas?” she asks. 

I’ve just written an editorial about the DHS-ICE raids that, since Jan. 2, have targeted Central American immigrant families with final deportation orders. 

“121 people have been apprehended so far,” I tell her. “In Georgia, Texas and North Carolina....”

Elisa (*) shakes her head. “But what have you heard about ICE raids yesterday on 18th and Pine? Or 15th and Spruce?” she insists.

Center City. Not far from where we’re having the conversation.

I can’t answer, I have no information, but it strikes me that I’ve completely misread the expression on her face. It isn’t anything as tame as worry. 

It’s terror. 


Confirmation of fear

Ever since the raids were first announced (the Washington Post broke the story Dec. 23), the caution and trepidation that undocumented immigrants experience daily has escalated to dread. 

Every immigration advocacy organization I call after my coffeeshop conversation returns the same story: they’ve been swamped by calls about raids in Philadelphia, and in municipalities near the city with substantial Latino populations: Bensalem, Norristown, Kennett Square, Avondale. There are reports from everywhere.

In this heightened atmosphere of fear, the organizations are each spending a lot of time trying to get accurate information. 

Two Guatemalan immigrants were taken in a raid of a Dunkin’ Donuts in Norristown, Erika Almirón of Juntos (the South Philly immigration advocacy organization) tells me. Juntos has done a lot of work at the municipality approximately 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia. As recently as 2014, there were reports that the local police and ICE there had banded together “to clean up the illegal Mexican population.”

Nicole Kligerman of New Sanctuary Movment (an interfaith immigrant justice organization that focuses its efforts in North Philly) tells me that Sunday, Jan. 3 — one day after the new DHS-ICE raid priorities were launched — ICE agents had shown up to raid a popular Greek eatery in a different section of the city. The diners themselves had gotten up and blocked the doorway and not allowed the ICE agents inside.

The story inches me perilously close to tears. Two in three U.S. adults favor allowing those in the country illegally to remain, and to become citizens (if certain criteria are met), according to a 2015 Gallup poll. Half of Republicans favor it — despite the Republican presidential hopefuls’ harsh anti-immigration stances. The spontaneous “citizen action” Kligerman has described seems to assure that they aren’t too fond of seeing the terror of a raid visited upon workers peacefully and quietly going about their business. 

I hear many stories of reported, unconfirmed raids from Almirón and Kligerman — a construction worker in Bensalem, hiding from a raid in progress when he calls; workers hiding in the basement of bodega while ICE agents move through the space upstairs — but neither of them can tell me anything about the 18th and Pine and 15th and Spruce locations Elisa has asked me about.

Photo: Sabrina Vourvoulias


The information underground

When I go back to get more specifics from Elisa, another one of the coffeeshop workers, Juan Pablo (*), is there. He’s shyer, less voluble than Elisa, but usually when I see him he’s smiling widely enough to show his dimples. Not today. He may not be as terrified as Elisa, but he’s grave.

Both of them ride their bikes from South Philly into Center City for work. Neither of them had taken their usual route home the day before because of the reported ICE activity on 18th and Pine. 

But how had they heard about it?

A decade or so ago, when I was writing my novel, Ink (it was published in 2012), I had imagined a community warning network for the people trying to survive the immigration dystopia I had dropped my characters into. It was a web-based network, and a word-of-mouth network, in my fictional world. And sadly, what was supposed to be cautionary prognosis is reality now.

It turns out that certain online communities serve as an early warning system for undocumented immigrants transiting through the city. On one such community page the day before, Elisa and Juan Pablo had read notices that there were lots of ICE agents at 18th and Pine, readying for a raid perhaps. And so Elisa and Juan Pablo stayed away.

Elisa had asked me about the 15th and Spruce location (overflowing onto Locust St.) because her husband, who makes deliveries, observed a gathering of ICE agents there. Now, it may well have been that the agents were on their way elsewhere, or that they were simply hanging around, say, deciding where to go to lunch. I’ve happened upon groups of ICE agents just chatting, as in the above photo I took in Suburban Station last year. But here’s the thing — I have nothing to fear from those ICE agents, after all, I’m a light-skinned Latina, with a good command of (and mostly unaccented) English, and a citizen from birth. In other words, I can see any grouping of ICE agents with the eyes of privilege.

When Eliza’s husband saw the ICE agents, he hid his face behind the box of pretzels he was delivering. He couldn’t risk being stopped.

Juntos’ information checklist tell me that ICE agents are not supposed to stop or arrest folks — on the suspicion of being undocumented — just for walking down the street, or riding their bikes. But none of us Latinos, not even the most privileged, feel any surety in that. In my own experience of the past decade, I’ve seen and heard of profiling done on the basis of “looking Latino,” of Spanish-accented English, even — God help us — on the basis of the kind of backpack undocumented folk supposedly favor. Now, with the focus on Central Americans, country of origin is a profiling tool as well.

In my interviews of undocumented folks in South Philly it becomes clear how widespread this sort of “profiling” is, and how far past ICE agents it extends. There are many stories of folks who simply won’t provide the services their offices (some of them municipal and state) are supposed to extend to residents if the person speaks to them first in Spanish, or if they are perceived as foreign. (Puerto Ricans, citizens from birth, get slammed by these “signifiers” too.)

Photo: Yesid Vargas


Just another work day

The advocates at both Juntos and New Sanctuary Movement spent the recent holiday season issuing “best practices” and “know your rights” information in advance of the DHS-ICE raids, the majority of which have been effected at homes, not workplaces. Kligerman tells me that one of the difficulties in determining whether the recently reported raids are part of the new DHS initiative is that local ICE workplace raids have been taking place, under the radar, since long before Dec. 23

Neither Elisa nor Juan Pablo know what to do if their workplace were raided. The homeowner’s (or tenant’s) right to demand to see a warrant with a specific name of who ICE is searching for doesn’t apply to workplaces, and raids there tend to sweep up people ICE found without looking.  

New Sanctuary Movement is preparing “best practices” and “rights” information sheets for this, too, but they are not available yet as I’m talking to Elisa and Juan Pablo, and I have no idea. 

Would they be able to walk out of the coffeeshop and come to AL DÍA’s offices? Should they refuse to answer questions? Would they be able to call someone? It is frustratingly unclear to me, and I end up giving them Juntos' and New Sanctuary Movement's phone numbers, as well as my own cell phone number. I watch as they both program that into their phones and wonder what the hell I’ll do if they ever call me amid raid.

Something. I’d do something, even if I can’t think of it now.

As they finish keying in my number, I remember something a priest who ministers to the undocumented community told me nearly a decade ago — when ICE arrests someone on the suspicion of being in the country without the right documents, they confiscate cell phones and go through the internal address books. They too understand there is a word-of-mouth network, and the people whose numbers are stored in the cell phones of those they suspect are undocumented become suspicious by association.

It doesn’t matter to me (privilege, remember?) but when I tell Elisa and Juan Pablo, they both say they’re going to take all the numbers of undocumented folks off their phones and keep them elsewhere.

Little things. Little things mean a lot when you live in fear in America.

Elisa and Juan Pablo heap blessings on me as I leave the coffeeshop a second time. As if I’ve actually done something.


“I am so scared for my son”

Elisa is Ecuadorian, her 7-year-old son is a U.S. citizen. Her greatest fear, she’s told me, is about what might happen to him. If ICE snags her. If ICE snags him.

“I don’t have a passport for him,” she says, and no way to show that he is a citizen. 

I suggest to her that she make copies of his birth certificate that both she and he can carry with them at all times. I don’t know if it is good, or even good-enough, advice. U.S. citizens have been mistakenly apprehended and deported by ICE.

Both Juntos and New Sanctuary Movement, in their informational materials, urge undocumented immigrants to have all their important documents (including ITIN numbers, passports, etc.) in one place, where a trusted friend or family member would have no problem getting them in case a bond needs to be secured or, as in Elisa’s worry, proof of a minor’s citizenship is needed.

The organizations further counsel folks to make arrangements in advance, in terms of who will take care of the child if the parent is taken during the day and the child returns from school to an empty home.

It is a distressingly common occurrence for undocumented families, and as Elisa ticks through her options — thinking out loud in front of me — I wonder how any presidential candidate can cavalierly think policies that painfully cleave families and intensify fears about being able to keep children safe are part of restoring the greatness of America? I wonder how they hold onto their policies of making America hellish for people like the diminutive Elisa, or good-natured Juan Pablo, riding their rusty old bicycles to and from work, to and from family every day, in hopes of a good and peaceful life.

Mundo Hispánico interviewed a young Latina in Atlanta, whose parents and siblings were hauled away from their home in front of her eyes. The reality of immigrant families in the United States is that many of them are mixed undocumented and citizen families — like Elisa’s — and that for the citizens in those families the government agency’s forcible entry into homes, their enforced disappearance of family members into the for-profit detention system and the deportation machine is almost indistinguishable from the old Soviet gulag system of punishment. 

The same day as my conversations with Elisa and Juan Pablo, an op-ed of mine appears on The Guardian’s website. In it I talk a bit about how (Marco) Rubio's story is the American dream, but his policies are an immigrant's nightmare. That is, an imagined nightmare because, after all, Rubio hasn’t been elected yet, and in fact, few people think he will be. 

But the actual immigrant’s nightmare is happening right now, in the final year of the Obama presidency, as DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson implements a program that is further terrorizing an already scared community — a nationwide community that has borne the emotional and familial impact of close to three million deportations. 

The current nightmare has taken with it not only many immigrants’ American Dream, but “the dream that was America” (to quote one of Obama’s resonant campaign turns of phrase) for people like Elisa and Juan Pablo, and their families.

Third coffee, and a future

I go to the coffeeshop once more, this time to give Elisa and Juan Pablo flyers with an informational meeting Juntos is holding Wednesday, right in South Philly, and the New Sanctuary Movement guidelines for what to do during a workplace raid. 

Their gratitude is genuine, and also shaming. To me and any other citizen who can work without the constant fear of a raid at the workplace; who can go home without first consulting if we will encounter a group of ICE agents along the trajectory; who can show our faces without fear; who can open the door to our homes and feel some measure of safety when we pull it shut behind us.

I make a mental note when I leave work today. 

I will check that Elisa and Juan Pablo’s bikes are locked to their usual stands on the sidewalk when I come to work. 

And when I leave work. 

Every day. From now until our immigration system stops serving up fear with my morning coffee.


(*) names have been changed

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