EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Activists from nearly a dozen organizations report a spike in immigration raids around El Paso and worry this will scare families from participating in the 2020 Census or seeking medical care if the coronavirus arrives to the region.

Agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have raided at least six Latino-owned businesses in the past two weeks, taking away workers who in some cases are parents of American-born children, organizers with the Border Network for Human Rights said on Friday.

The enforcement has focused on the unincorporated community of Canutillo — where a restaurant, tortilla factory, lumber yard and tire shop have been raided — and in Hispanic neighborhoods in East El Paso, group members said.

“They’re going into small businesses […] they’re separating families, they’re taking away people who go to work to provide for their families,” said Canutillo community organizer Rosa Avila. “People are afraid; they can’t go to the tortilla factory, they can’t go to the tire shop, they can’t go grab something to eat because there was a raid at the restaurant.”

Avila said up to 20 people in Canutillo may have been taken away by immigration authorities recently and it’s not clear to her if the agents had warrants to enter businesses or homes. “People get scared when they see the badges; they submit to the agents” with or without a warrant, she said, adding that activists will soon be starting a “know your rights” campaign targeted at small business owners.

Santiago Rodriguez

Santiago Rodriguez, a resident of Canutillo, said he’s now caring for his 11-year-old grandson because his daughter was taken during the raid at the tortilla factory.

“He is very sad, he’s not doing well at school, he needs a lot of moral support … we are all depressed and we don’t know what to do,” he said.

Rodriguez, a naturalized U.S. citizen, said he tried to secure legal permanent resident status for his Mexico-born daughters, but the one ICE arrested had an “unfortunate situation” with immigration authorities when she was a teenager.

“She went to Juarez (Mexico) with friends from Canutillo High, she wasn’t supposed to,” he said, because her residency application was pending, and that came up when she tried to re-enter the United States. Rodriguez’s daughter has been in the United States for the past 30 years.

BNHR Executive Director Fernando Garcia said the stepped-up enforcement could discourage Latino families from participating in the 2020 Census count or from reporting health problems if the coronavirus reaches the region. He called for a halt to immigration enforcement actions in neighborhoods until the Census concludes and the health crisis subsides.

“The coronavirus is getting close to our community, health emergencies are being called all around us and the Census, a very important Census in terms of procuring resources for and political representation for our community, is going on. It doesn’t make sense to have these raids now that scare our community,” Garcia said.

Border Report on Friday reached out to ICE for confirmation of the stepped-up enforcement and the groups’ allegations. In a written response, the agency only addressed the health aspects, basically saying no one should refrain from seeking medical care for fear of being arrested by immigration authorities.

“ICE does not conduct operations at medical facilities, except under extraordinary circumstances. Claims to the contrary are false and create unnecessary fear within communities. Individuals should continue to seek care for medical conditions.”

In a recent tweet, Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Heather Swift responded bluntly to a Hispanic Congressional Caucus claim that ICE conducts raids around hospitals.

“Dishonest fear mongering is dangerous to the immigrant community. The disinformation campaign pushes a false narrative when people are looking to elected officials for (information),” Swift tweeted.

Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, talks about recent ICE raids in El Paso. (photo by Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

Garcia of the Border Network said his organization soon would not only expand its “know your rights” program to area businesses, but also start a campaign to document abuses by police and immigration authorities.

“Let’s remember that every body in the United States, you have rights in your businesses and your homes and on the streets. Those are constitutional rights. For ICE to go into a business they have to have a search warrant and a court order,” he said.

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