On the afternoon of Feb. 24 the usually lively streets of East Palo Alto were mostly empty. But the city and its residents were frenetic along other avenues.
Nearly a month to the day after President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13768 seeking to deport tens of thousands of "removable aliens," the internet was abuzz with warnings that federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents had been spotted at a local gas station. Agents in dark blue jackets and khaki pants had supposedly been asking a Latino man for his documentation. ICE vehicles were allegedly seen at another gas station at the corner of University Avenue and East Bayshore Road — a checkpoint, people conjectured. Other residents thought ICE agents were in vans in front of elementary schools, awaiting parents who might be undocumented to arrive to pick up their children.
All of these rumors now appear to be unfounded, according to police and an ICE spokesman. But dozens of parents called the Ravenswood City School District offices that day, compelling the school district to convene a March 2 community meeting to quell fears.
"Parents called and thought that ICE was outside of the schools; it was tree trimmers from the City of East Palo Alto who were doing maintenance work across the street. People pulled their kids out of school," Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff said.
The rumors — and how quickly they spread — point to a population of immigrants who are not only afraid but who don't know their rights or whom they can trust. Two-thirds of East Palo Alto's 28,155 residents are immigrants, both legal and undocumented, with 61.6 percent being Latino and 10.9 percent Pacific Islanders, according to city data. Feeling isolated, they are fearful of schools, the city, police or others who might turn them or their family members over to immigration authorities.
In response, East Palo Altans, community and faith groups have been coming together to educate each other about their civil rights. They are forming watchdog coalitions to monitor ICE actions and setting up sanctuaries in their homes for families suddenly in crisis or who need a place to hide.
Some of the strongest advocates are undocumented residents themselves, who've taken it upon themselves to teach others about their rights.
Laura, a mother of two who does not want her last name published because of her immigration status, arrived in the U.S. nearly 16 years ago. She made her way over barbed wire and hid in the cold desert night in an abandoned vehicle and then in safe houses in Los Angeles — a sort of underground railroad to the "promised land."
On one of her tries, the smugglers, or "coyotes," sent Laura to a dark house in a bad part of Mexicali, where she was told to remain silent. About 100 people were crowded inside the residence, she recalled. When the signal came to run for the fence, she was the second person to climb over it. But she was near panic, fearing she would be caught, when a large searchlight swung in her direction, she said. Suddenly, a man reached out his hand and pulled her to safety.
"To this day I don't know why he did that. He could have just kept running," she said.
That incident is now a metaphor for the work she is doing to help people stay on the northern side of the barbed wire: It's about reaching out to others even if you don't know who they are, she said.
Now she gives talks at schools and community meetings for local community group Comite Latino, which offers fellowship and information to the Latino community and organizes the annual Cinco de Mayo festival.
"The first thing when I came here, I was afraid to go out because I didn't feel I had rights. Now I know I can fight for my rights, and I can fight for others, too," Laura said. "My brother says, 'You have to be careful; you are too political and you are without papers.' But that doesn't matter. If you can help the community, that is OK. They can help me, too."
Chela, a 26-year U.S. resident who also asked that her last name be withheld, is also helping other undocumented immigrants. She has the rock-solid demeanor of a wise grandmother, a direct gaze and easy smile. Her rough hands show years of menial labor as a janitor, seamstress and restaurant worker. But she also trains and choreographs dances for quinceaneras, the coming-out parties for 15-year-old girls, and she teaches a local folklorico dance group. In the schools, she volunteered as an ambassador for families with children with disabilities.
Well-known and trusted in the community, Chela acts as a bridge between organizations that want to help and leery immigrants who desperately need information. She hands out leaflets for meetings sponsored by Comite Latino and makes phone calls, and she is helping to coordinate immigrant-resources booths for the upcoming Cinco de Mayo celebration.
"I worry about working people and families with small children and those with disabilities," she said.
"It is definitely important to defend oneself and to know what to answer when you are asked questions. People need to know their rights," she said.
She said recent fears over deportation have a silver lining: "It is bringing different kinds of people together to get past the prejudice found in different ethnic groups and traditions."
Trust comes first
East Palo Alto Vice Mayor Ruben Abrica said that people like Chela are important because they have history in the neighborhood.
"People listen to her," said Abrica, who cofounded Comite Latino.
Building trust is the basis for everything else, he said. But it isn't easy. There's a fundamental mistrust of authorities in some immigrant communities based on past bad experiences in their native countries and in the United States. Some people aren't accessing the services they need because they don't trust the programs' providers.
"We are starting to see people declining services out of fear," Iliana Rodriguez, human services agency director for the County of San Mateo, said she has heard anecdotally at the Feb. 28 Comite Latino "Know Your Rights" meeting. The caseload for CalFresh supplemental food-assistance has dropped, for example, she later said, although she did not have hard numbers.
Victoria Tinoco of Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto agreed. The nonprofit organization offers free legal help to residents, including services related to immigration law.
"People say they are afraid to talk to us because they are afraid we are working with ICE. No!" she said. Community Legal Services clients are protected by attorney-client privilege, she told the crowd.
At the school district's emergency meeting on March 2 at Costano Elementary School, nearly 200 people gathered in the gymnasium.
Hernandez-Goff, flanked by representatives from the East Palo Alto and Menlo Park police departments and the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office, described how the district will handle any ICE agents who might come to the schools.
The district Board of Education unanimously adopted a resolution on Feb. 23 that makes clear that district resources, including employees, will not be used to enforce civil immigration law. The district and staff will not collect or share any information regarding documentation or citizenship status for the federal government and will not take part in any registry, she said.
"Many of our staff are immigrants. And guess what? They are afraid too," she said.
"If ICE comes to the school's office, they are to be sent to the district office or I will come to the school and our lawyer will meet me there," she said.
Some parents said they fear that ICE agents might follow the school bus. But drivers who see someone following them have been instructed not to drop any child off; they are to bring the child back to the district office and a parent will be contacted, Hernandez-Goff said. Children will not be left alone, and the district will keep calling persons authorized to pick up a child until someone can be reached, she said.
Parents should have a plan for custody of their children in the event they are detained by ICE, however, and they should update any cards at the school indicating who will be allowed to take their children from the campus. Absent a designated adult, children could end up in the foster-care system, she said.
Hernandez-Goff said that the large turnout at the Costano meeting gave her hope.
"It shows that people are willing to come out and are asking questions of the district and of the police. I give them big kudos. Now they are getting a little feisty," she said.
To reach more families, the district is setting up small-group "cafecitos" where parents can meet over coffee and ask more personalized questions, she said.
One parent, Marco Duarte, is also training others through the district's Family Leadership Institute Migrant Committee. The committee helps parents to understand their rights, ask questions and get results. The group has a phone tree to call parents and keep them informed.
Duarte stressed the importance of safety in numbers.
"We need everybody on the bus. We don't want to feel disadvantaged as a minority," he said.
Building rapid-response teams, safe havens
Inevitably, people will be picked up by ICE. One East Palo Alto resident — a parishioner at the city's St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church — was deported after trying to re-enter the country at San Francisco International Airport, according to pastor Fr. Lawrence Goode.
When ICE comes calling, volunteers who have formed "rapid-response teams" will convene at the scene to witness the action.
Faith In Action Bay Area has trained nearly 1,000 people in San Mateo and San Francisco counties to jump into action when there is news of an ICE encounter.
On March 20, more than 70 people arrived at St. Francis of Assisi to learn about training as legal observers, moral witnesses, family-support personnel and accompaniment teams.
Jennifer Martinez, executive director of the San Francisco-based organization, said the strategy has already been used in San Francisco and has helped prevent several dozen deportations. Now it is being scaled up.
On March 27 the organization opened a rapid-response hotline for people to report ICE encounters. When the call comes in, a team of volunteers will go to the site of the action to document any abuses by authorities. The witnesses can confirm if ICE is on scene or dispel any rumors if another law-enforcement agency is there, such as a parole officer. A legal representative will arrive to ensure that the person's rights are not being violated and either offer representation or direct the person to legal services.
The volunteers will help families and individuals in crisis by providing food, rides to appointments and connections to social and mental health services.
"We're training enough people to have a 24/7 response," Martinez said. "The bright spot in all of this is the amount of people who have come to say they want to stand up for human rights and dignity.
"In my 15 years of organizing, I have never had a time when we opened the doors and 1,000 people walked through in a matter of weeks," she said.
Rapid-response attorneys are an especially important component of the volunteer network. Immigrants facing arrest and deportation can be expelled rapidly from the country, often before a hearing or before they can offer an argument against deportation, such as being victims of crime, said Ilyce Shugall, directing attorney of the immigration program at Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto.
"There are certain categories of individuals that ICE doesn't have to bring before an immigration judge and can just bring an immigration order. The Interior Enforcement executive order does suggest that they will use those provisions to the fullest extent possible," she said.
The broad language in the executive order implies that enforcement could be used against a wide swath of immigrants who are not in the country legally. Shugall is particularly concerned that some Mexican nationals who may be eligible to stay in the U.S. will be arrested and deported — someone who failed to appear for a hearing because he or she never received notice after the court got the address wrong, for example.
Undocumented Mexicans get deported quickly, she said, since Mexico is just a bus ride away — unlike someone from a more distant country, who would be more costly to deport.
Community Legal Services is hiring additional staff for its immigration program to address the increased number of people in need and to stay abreast of the changing laws. The organization used to help students apply for protection under the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA), but it has stopped taking new applicants because through the executive order it appears that Trump intends to revoke DACA, she said.
Another movement within the community is offering safe havens or sanctuaries for individuals who are clearly at risk for deportation. Volunteers are offering a room, food or transportation to the homes of the person's relatives and friends in another city, so the person being sought can hide.
It's a risky move to provide a safe house, though.
"That can be considered alien harboring under federal criminal law," Shugall said.
But some persons in the sanctuary movement said they are willing to take the risk.
One volunteer said she plans to house one to two adults or a family of four or five at her home.
As to the personal risk: "It is always real," she said.
"I don't want to say it's an underground railroad for immigrants," she added when describing the services the groups offers, but in essence that is what it might become. She has a room ready and will wait for a call from a network — a call she hopes will never have to come for the sake of the immigrants involved, she said.
The volunteer said there are times in history when it is not enough to be self-protective. Her own family history with the Holocaust informed her decision, she said.
"I grew up in a family where the first thing that comes to mind when meeting a new friend is, 'Would you hide me?'" she said.
"It's a very real question. Would I help my friends, my family and my neighbors? It's the cost of membership in humanity. ... And if we're not willing to do that, what kind of society are we?"
Laura, the undocumented immigrant, said she is also setting a good example for her teenage daughter about fighting for one's rights, being self-educated and helping others.
"I have listened a long time about bad things about East Palo Alto. But if we work together — I don't care if we are three or four small people — we can change things. My priority is to work with the new generation. They are our future," she said.