Baltimore City

‘People are really, really afraid’: Mass-deportation threat strikes fear into Baltimore immigrants

The Rev. Bruce Lewandowski was unlocking the doors of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church for the first services early Sunday morning when he noticed a family of immigrants in a van outside.

The pastor greeted them: “You're here early for church.”


Lewandowski said they replied, “‘We stayed here all night. We slept in our van because we don't know where to go.’”

President Donald Trump’s announcement last week that millions of undocumented immigrants would be arrested and deported in federal immigration raids nationwide struck fear into large immigrant communities in Highlandtown and other areas, clergy and advocates said. The Southeast Baltimore neighborhood is home to many Salvadorans, Hondurans, Mexicans and Guatemalans.


Later last week, media outlets reported leaked details, such as the day raids were to begin, Sunday, plus specific locations — including Baltimore.

I characterize it as an act of domestic terrorism. People are afraid, really afraid.

—  The Rev. Bruce Lewandowski

“I characterize it as an act of domestic terrorism,” Lewandowski said of the announced raids. “People are afraid, really afraid.”

A follow-up tweet by Trump Saturday announcing a two-week delay of the raids to allow Congress to work on immigration reforms did little to calm the neighborhood’s nerves.

ICE spokeswoman Carol Danko criticized the leaks in context of their potential impact on ICE personnel, saying in a statement Saturday that "any leaks telegraphing sensitive law enforcement operations is egregious and puts our officers' safety in danger."

The agency did not respond to calls for comment Sunday.

In Baltimore, dozens stayed after the weekly 11 a.m. Mass for a “Know Your Rights” seminar in Spanish led by the Esperanza Center, a Catholic Charities resource center.

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori accepted an invitation from the interfaith group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) to speak to the congregation in Spanish before the service Sunday.

“It is high time to call attention to the plight of immigrants in the city of Baltimore and far beyond,” Lori said afterward. “I came to express my solidarity, my love, my care for the immigrant community.”


The Catholic Church leadership, he added, “has to lend its voice to integral immigration reform to help really fix this and to secure a long and lasting justice for our immigrants.”

The “Know Your Rights” seminar, which used some call-and-response segments, focused on reminding immigrants of their Constitutional rights, including: to remain silent, to deny entry to their houses without a warrant and to refuse to sign paperwork, said Giuliana Valencia-Banks, the Esperanza Center’s outreach coordinator.

After the seminar — while one family celebrated a baptism, taking pictures with their baby at a side-altar — a queue formed down the aisle like a second Communion line of people approaching Valencia-Banks with their questions and concerns.

“A lot of it is just fear,” Valencia-Banks said. “There’s a sense of uncertainty and a general mistrust of the system. They have lots of questions about how to start the process of immigration relief.”

On a beautiful Saturday, the usual bustling neighborhood noises of children playing and people running errands or merely enjoying the nice weather were eerily absent, said Rachel Brooks, a senior organizer with BUILD.

“This was a ghost town yesterday,” she said.


Brooks called the false alarm of immigration raids, which have been conducted regularly since 2003, often resulting in hundreds of arrests, a “really ugly, terrible dry run” for immigrants and advocates in the event of actual raids.

The two-week delay provides a short window to prepare, Lewandowski said.

“We need to be ready for what might happen the Fourth of July weekend,” he said.

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Donna Batkis, a mental health provider who runs Consultas Psychotherapy in Towson and also serves immigrants in Southeast Baltimore, said the situation is further eroding immigrants’ trust in the government.

Nearly a third of her immigrant patients — many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other mental illnesses — have stopped showing up to appointments, prioritizing their families’ physical security over their own psychological well-being, Batkis said.

She doesn’t blame them.


“People are much more aware of their vulnerability,” she said. “It casts this pall and makes people frightened.”

Some did not attend church at Sacred Heart on Sunday, either staying home or already fleeing the city to avoid being arrested. Brooks’ message to them was one of solidarity.

“You are not alone,” she said. “We are with you. We’re going to stand with you — not in words, not in nice speeches, but in action.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

For the record

This story has been updated to correct the name of the Highlandtown church where the "Know Your Rights" seminar was held. It is the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church.