Arrests of immigrants in Baltimore leave many fearful

"There's a fear and mistrust" in Baltimore's immigrant community. The effect is widespread.

One day, Segundo Paucar was a pillar of Highlandtown's tight-knit, Ecuadorian-American community: a 31-year-old married father of two who employed eight people in a small business that rehabbed about 50 properties in the city each year.

The next day, he was gone, picked up by federal agents on charges related to his allegedly having entered the country illegally when he was 15.

His sudden disappearance from his family and community — he now sits locked up in the Frederick County Detention Center — has sent shock waves through East Baltimore. Activists and local officials say a sense of fear has swept the immigrant community amid the Trump administration's orders to enforce federal immigration laws more aggressively.

Paucar's brother, who asked not to be identified out of fear of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, said the whole family is worried, particularly the children.

"They've been asking 'Where is Dad? When is Dad going to come back?' We've been trying to help him. There's a fear and mistrust about what is happening," he said.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Paucar and popular local barber Serbando Fernando Rodriguez in Baltimore last month. They accused Paucar of being an "immigration fugitive with a final order of removal" issued more than a decade ago and Rodriguez of "illegally re-entering the United States after a previous deportation."

Last week, ICE officials arrested a Salvadorian man outside the North Avenue District Courthouse after he had been cleared of a misdemeanor charge. ICE officials, who did not identify the man, said he was charged with being an "immigration fugitive with a final order of removal issued by an immigration judge."

The recent arrests have had a noticeable community impact, leaders say. Some are pushing back — activists have rallied for immigrant rights in Annapolis and marched in protest through East Baltimore. Some businesses closed for a day to demonstrate what a day without immigrants might look like.

But there's also fear. Attendance dropped at some Highlandtown-area schools the day after Paucar and Rodriguez were arrested. Some businesses are seeing fewer customers. Health workers say fewer immigrants are seeking medical services and picking up medications.

And there's a rush of immigrants trying to obtain passports for their children out of fear their families will be torn apart if the parents are deported.

Valerie Twanmoh, director of Catholic Charities' Esperanza Center, said that during the Obama administration her organization used to get "one or two" requests a week for passports for children. The group recently received 37 requests in a single day.

"They're worried if they get picked up they wouldn't be able to take their American-born children with them," Twanmoh said.

Dr. Sarah Polk, co-director of Centro SOL, a health center for Latinos run by Johns Hopkins, said an 11-year-old visited her center this week contemplating suicide because of "how frightening it is to see ICE in the neighborhood."

She said case managers at the center have been "overwhelmed" by requests from immigrant parents for "notarized letters" attesting to their guardianship of their children.

"We have significant concerns about child and parent mental health given the tremendous stress they are under," said Polk, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "I have tremendous concerns about family financial stability."

Some support more aggressive enforcement. Jessica M. Vaughan is director of policy studies at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes illegal immigration.

She said the Obama administration directed ICE officers not to enforce older deportation orders, such as the one that applies to Paucar. If people oppose current immigration law, she said, they should tell Congress to rewrite it.

"Immigration enforcement has been neglected for far too long," she said. "It's not fair to the millions of people who are being sponsored through our legal immigration system."

Vaughan said fear can deter illegal immigration.

"Nobody expects that illegal immigration can be completely ended," she said. "I do expect that we will see a drop in the number of people who try to come here illegally. People who are living here now are going to be evaluating their situation and deciding if it's still worth it to stay here.

"The goal is to get people to comply with the law on their own."

Some see selective outrage. Gary M. Collins, who volunteered for President Donald Trump during the campaign, said he didn't see the same level of opposition when the Obama administration was deporting hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants.

"The president is enforcing the laws that are on the books," the Baltimore man said. "He's not saying don't come here. He's saying come here legally."

City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who represents Highlandtown, said outrage over the arrests is justified.

"What kind of country do we live in where people are afraid to talk to the police and parents are afraid to send their children to school?" he asked

As immigrants stay indoors, nearby businesses are feeling financial pain.

Evaristo Guzman Martinez, a supervisor and co-owner with his father of Cinco de Mayo, a grocer that serves the Latino community in Highlandtown, has seen a noticeable drop in business at the store. Sales have dropped by 8 percent to 10 percent, he said.

"A lot of clients send young kids — most were born here so they are legal — in taxis or walking to get their groceries," he said.

At David Rosario's State Farm office on Eastern Avenue in Canton, fewer people are coming in. He wants his customers to come back, but said he understands the fear that's keeping them away. "I was born and raised in the United States, but I find myself collecting all my documents," Rosario said.

He's also worried about his six employees, four of whom are recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which gives work permits to undocumented immigrants who came to the country as minors.

In the short term, Trump's call to expedite deportation could severely impact restaurants, construction contractors and other businesses that rely on immigrants to fill low-skilled jobs, analysts say.

Undocumented immigrants accounted for about 5.9 percent of Maryland's workforce in 2010, according to a state report, and the loss of these workers could put businesses that struggle to find Americans willing to do the jobs in a bind.

Meanwhile, academics say immigrants who come to the United States to study at universities and who often stay for high-skill jobs in technology, engineering and medicine could be dissuaded by the uncertainty and feeling of being unwelcome, creating a workforce pipeline problem for some of the country's fastest-growing business sectors.

Trump signed an executive order authorizing the hiring of 10,000 more immigration enforcement agents and broadening the categories of immigrants to be detained and deported.

Obama was criticized by immigration advocates as the "Deporter in Chief" after the government removed nearly 410,000 people in 2012. But in 2014, Obama directed agents to focus on "felons, not families; criminals, not children; gang members, not a mom who's working hard to provide for her kids."

In his final year in his office, the government deported 240,000. Nearly all who were not caught near the border had criminal records.

Trump spokesman Sean Spicer has said there would be no "mass deportation" in America. Rather, he said, Trump has returned the discretion to enforce immigration laws to individual ICE officers.

Merely being an undocumented immigrant in the United States is a civil offense, not a criminal offense. Many undocumented immigrants entered the country legally but then overstayed or violated the terms of their visas.

Trump's executive orders have left DACA in place. Much of the fear within immigrant communities stems from the unknown.

"He could get up at three in the morning on Twitter and say 'DACA is done,'" said Jesus Eusebio Perez, 24.

Perez was 5 years old when he came to the United States with an older cousin with plans to reunite with his mother in Maryland.

After graduating from high school and obtaining DACA status, he was able to get a job as a program research assistant at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where he's been working for the past three years. He said he has not experienced the discrimination others have described, but still feels nervous sometimes.

"There are times I go out and I pray to God and say 'Please let me get home,'" Perez said.

Community groups are taking on new importance as havens where people can turn for answers and advice. The Latino Providers Network, led by Rosario, the State Farm agent, dedicated its most recent meeting to a lawyer's presentation about the immigration orders.

The lawyer, from the Esperanza Center, fielded questions such as how early a DACA recipient can reapply for the program, whether it's safe for a DACA recipient to submit to fingerprinting for a job application, and how parents who think they could be deported should prepare for the care of their children.

After the Highlandtown arrests, hundreds took to the streets of Highlandtown to protest, and elected officials called on ICE to stay out of Baltimore.

Lourdes Ortega, an Ecuadorean immigrant who works as a community organizer for CASA, said Paucar was known for playing with his 10-year-old son, who tagged along with him to local pick-up soccer matches. She said he was part of an influx of Ecuadorans to Baltimore who have bought homes and opened businesses, such as mechanic shops and restaurants.

Paucar's brother said he's worried about the arrest, but hopeful his lawyer will persuade an immigration court to release him. Even so, he said he's always felt welcomed in the United States, and is proud of the work Paucar has done here rehabbing vacant properties.       

"We have helped bring up this city," he said. "We have helped improve the city. We have helped bring up cities all across America."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

sarah.gantz@baltsun.com

lmirabella@baltsun.com

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