How Trump Immigration Orders Ignite Panic and Fear From Streets to Schools

Roseann Torres is an Oakland Unified School District Board member and lawyer who has many clients from that California city’s immigrant community. She spoke with AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld about the fear, panic and confusion she is witnessing as the Trump administration targets anyone without a visa for arrest and deportation.


(This interview was conducted before the Department of Homeland Security issued two memos Monday to ramp up deportation of all undocumented people, including children, end parole of those caught, expand immigration courts and prisons, hire 10,000 federal immigration police, enlist local police for arrests, deport children traveling alone (and parents here) and make no exception for dreamers--the teenage children raied here.)

Steven Rosenfeld: You’re a school board member and a lawyer, and you work with the immigrant community. What are you hearing and seeing, such as kids staying home from school?

Roseann Torres: There’s been a couple of things. We have a couple of huge flea markets where a lot of immigrant people work selling their goods and services. About two weeks ago, I was with my mother and her friend, who got a call for some saying that they think that they saw ICE [federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement] at this flea market and people were leaving their food and afraid and were taking off. That’s their livelihood.

So that fear went running through the community. And through my contacts with City Council members, they immediately contacted the [Oakland] police, a sergeant who was on duty—this was a Sunday. They were told, no, there’s no ICE raids. Well, we know that ICE will not give us a heads up. We know that they don’t have any reason to tell when they’re going to go and what they are going to do. That’s the whole point, the element of surprise.

So, probably what happened was someone was getting arrested. Maybe the police had a warrant. But in any event, the feeling was, well, we’re going to get a lot of these false alarms. And lo and behold on Monday, I had a client drop something off. I work with many Spanish-speaking-only undocumented families, because I do family law—and family law courts do not ask for proof of documentation; you use the court because you are a resident of the court, so I don’t have to ever ask anyone about their legal status and neither does a judge because it’s state law not federal law—we’re looking the other way. So a client came in and said on Sunday night, again, at the least time you would expect, she was driving at nine o’clock on International Blvd. when the police appeared to be stopping people at a checkpoint. She freaked out. She went the other direction.

So the fact of the matter is, whether the police are engaged in regular activity, like stopping someone because they are swerving while driving and it’s a DUI, or arresting someone because they have a warrant, at this point it’s just complete pandemonium for people.

SR: What have you seen with public school students?  

RT: We do know that students didn’t go to school on November 9th, a massive amount of students did not go to school because their parents did not go to work, because they were just in shock and they were in fear and that has grown.

I was in a school yesterday that participated in the immigrant action to stay home. Only 50 percent of the students showed up at the school I was visiting as a school board member. This was a small tight-knit community that’s about 95 percent Latino in East Oakland, a middle and high school. What the principal said was the students that were there, who maybe were born here and the African-American students—they’re very confused: Why is this happening? How is this happening? How are we going backwards to being such a society that we have no checks and balances, and we have a president out of control?

The students are confused and they are having to hold a lot more circles and utilize mental health services, because students are depressed. They’re sad. They’re not able to concentrate. They’re worried about a friend who they might know who is undocumented.

So it’s not as if you can say, well, only undocumented people are going to be negatively affected. Absolutely not. My daughter is here. I’m fifth generation and she has participated in walkouts at Oakland Tech [High School] because she has friends on her soccer team who have been here maybe since they were one or two or three years old. No one would suspect because of their perfect English skills that they may be undocumented. They may have been here for 16 years. They’re Dreamers. It’s really bad.

SR: Yesterday, at Trump’s press conference, he gave very mixed signals about Dreamers. He said it breaks his heart, but he has to follow the law, he will do the right thing, but there are still some criminals…

RT: Yeah, criminals, because they came in illegally...

SR: What civil rights and immigration attorneys tell me is that while President Obama was no angel with deportations, at least it was pretty clear who was a target and who wasn’t, and what Trump is doing is saying everyone is a target. Is that accurate?

RT: Yeah, that’s what it sounds like. Everybody is a target… I didn’t hear the press conference. I was in court all day. But I think Obama had established that there was a respect for young people and there were parameters around young people who came here; their parents brought them here. Many unaccompanied and undocumented young people in Oakland, they don’t even have a parent here to protect them. They came here on their own because their parents knew if they stayed, they would be forced into the gangs or the girls would be forced into prostitution. And so that’s a huge component.

We have a school in Oakland, an International High School, made up of 100 percent students that are from another country. One-hundred percent of those students. I can just imagine the fears of those students. They are refugees from all over. Children from Mongolia. Children from Syria. Children from everywhere are at Oakland International High School, which is just a few blocks from Oakland Tech, a more affluent school and what not.

To call children criminals? To have hard-working people doing jobs that Americans will not do, to call them criminals? I would say you might want to redefine what a criminal is then, because those jobs will go empty. Isn’t that criminal, that businesses are going to go under because Americans aren’t going to do dishwashing, busing tables and picking the strawberries, the back-breaking work. They’re not. We all know they are not.

SR: One of the things you mentioned before is that some of the advice being given to undocumented people when they see police actions is not necessarily the most pragmatic, like taking pictures or videos. Will you elaborate on that, because there are a lot of websites giving advice you’re saying is not realistic.

RT: Yes, not prudent. Well, my city council members were not happy when we were trying to figure out truth from fiction about these things that were allegedly happening on Sunday at the flea markets. And then when the sergeant said no, that’s not happening, and so on, their advice was that we are going to have to be clear and not have all these false alarms.

I felt the reality is we are going to have false alarms, and we are going to have to have a real quick system to decipher what’s going on. We now know of agencies that are going to provide legal defense and so on, the ACLU and other organizations in San Francisco—which I wouldn’t have known before the recent federal actions. But to tell people to take pictures or take videos to confirm it is not realistic. Because they are putting themselves in jeopardy.

I’ve actually watched something that I thought was a little alarming going on with the police. I stopped to take a picture and the police officer was really angry with me. But I felt it was worth the risk. I wasn’t worried about my legal status. I was worried about whether I was seeing some kind of police brutality. But to have a person put themselves in the line of fire, that’s not advice I can give.

SR: What are we anticipating next, as things unfold? We hear that next week there will be some kind of new executive order on the travel ban from Muslim countries. That’s just one piece of a larger landscape. What should people pay attention to?  

RT: I’m curious to know who will stand up to Trump and say, You’re wrong. You’re absolutely wrong in the way that you are trying to come in and do things and put the scare tactics in people. Who is going to come in who knows these communities?

I can tell you, a very dear friend works for the mayor of San Diego, multiple mayors now, because she loves her city. When I watch the things that she does on Facebook; she works constantly between Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, to deal with binational trade. She’ll be in a room with the mayor of San Diego, the mayor of Tijuana, various other leaders of commerce, of the chambers of Tijuana and San Diego, doing trade and signing agreements. We know that hundreds of thousands of people are crossing that border every day with Mexican license plates and they are not documented to live here. They work here—eight, nine, 10 hours and go home—and live in Mexico. And that’s happening every single day. To say that they would close the border is ludicrous.

It will not happen. Parents even bring their kids, put them in schools in San Diego, and go to work, pick them up and go home to their home in Tijuana with their American wages. So it’s not possible to upend what’s been happening there because it works. It works for the companies. It works for the families. It works for the children. The schools are even allowing it. There’s just so many things that make me wonder, does Trump really even know what’s going on? I don’t think so.         

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