As word spread that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents took nine allegedly undocumented immigrants into custody late last week, “mass panic” ran like wildfire, according to Rhiana Medina.
Medina, executive director of the Moab Valley Multicultural Center, said those nine have not yet been transported to a federal detention center, but neither are they in the Grand County Jail. Wherever they are, it’s only temporary and they could be moved “at any second,” she said. Two others were also taken into custody, bringing the total number to 11, but they were not from Grand County.
Many immigrants went into hiding or fled the area altogether, leaving restaurants and lodging houses short staffed – in some cases seriously enough to prompt them to close their doors on a busy Friday night.
And not all of those immigrants are in the country without permission. The manager of a local restaurant said many of his employees who didn’t arrive for work Friday have the proper paperwork, they just don’t want to “play 20 questions” with ICE. “If they get asked and one thing isn’t in order, they get detained. They worry about that and they worry about their families,” he said.
Medina told The Times-Independent, “We have quite a large first-generation Hispanic or Latino immigrant population,” and she estimated that more than 1,400–or 15 percent–of Grand County’s roughly 9,600 residents belong to that demographic. That isn’t to suggest all of them are in the country without the proper visas, she explained, but enough of them are, as became apparent when so many didn’t show up for work. Medina, like the restaurant manager, confirms many of those who fled have the appropriate visas.
Medina said she was upset with some of the negative commentary posted on social media in response to the raid and the subsequent pro-immigrant protest that took place Saturday. “We work very hard to dispel the rumor that the Multicultural Center is just an immigrant resource center because it’s for everybody … our mission is to build bridges, community support and collaboration. You can’t build bridges if you’re divided,” she said. “We’re all human. We all make mistakes. We all love our families. We all need to work and we all have our own backgrounds and our own stories.”
It’s unclear if the panic has subsided. Medina said some have returned to work and “some are still frightened.” When asked if the businesses that hire undocumented immigrants should share the blame, Medina was reflective. “I don’t want to paint the employers as the bad guys,” she said. “I feel sorry their services were interrupted. So many people are jumping to conclusions, saying everybody who works there is undocumented. Those comments spread fear.”
There was plenty of fear going around last Thursday evening and Friday. When the calls came in, Medina said relatives of those detained were “distressed and afraid.” It isn’t uncommon for people to come into the center after a loved one has been arrested for non-immigration-related issues. With that in mind, she said the center and its employees are well versed in helping families with legal issues.
“It’s a service we’ve offered for a long time,” she said. “We receive people with compassion and we’re non-judgmental. We tell them we’re not attorneys, but we can help them obtain information and connect them to legal resources, but this was a lot all at once and it created mass panic.”
Two years ago the federal agency ICE, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security, picked up three undocumented workers and at that time, said Medina, people didn’t show up for work, whether or not they had the right to be in America.
Praise for MPD
Medina said she supports Moab Police Chief Jim Winder and she wants those who were affected by the ICE raids to understand local law enforcement is not an enemy. Winder in a social media post issued Saturday said ICE had informed the Grand County Sheriff’s Office that their officers would be in the Moab area. The courtesy notification let local law enforcement officers know that the raid was coming. But Winder took pains to explain that the law precludes local officers from asking anyone about their immigration status. Local law enforcement provides services to everyone, regardless of their status, he wrote.
Medina shares the chief’s concern that undocumented immigrants who are victims of crimes won’t call the police for fear of being detained. “We’ve collaborated more this year than ever before with the Moab Police Department,” said Medina. “This incident only makes me want to defend them more. We really appreciate our local law enforcement because we want everyone to feel safe.”
One persistent rumor Medina keeps hearing is that undocumented immigrants receive welfare benefits. “We hear [people complain that] they’re getting welfare, health care,” she said. “This is absolutely false. If you are an (undocumented) immigrant, you’re without the status to qualify for those benefits.”
As for Saturday’s pro-immigrant protest, Medina said that was a spontaneous act organized by people outside of the center. As a nonprofit organization that receives funding from taxpayers, the center and its employees are required to remain apolitical, she said. “We’re not here to divide,” she said. “We’re here to unite and celebrate and respect everyone’s differences.”
Detainees suspected of aggravated re-entry, police chief says
Some of the individuals apprehended in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid last week were believed to be “aggravated re-entry suspects” and had re-entered the United States after being deported once, Moab Police Chief Jim Winder reported Tuesday. Some of them may have had criminal offenses and could have presented dangers to the community.
In the wake of the detainments, though, Moabites organized a quick response to Thursday and Friday’s raid, with a protest Saturday afternoon, Aug. 25. More than 50 people came out to demonstrate against the action, which resulted in the detention of 11 individuals.
At the rally, organizer Cassandra Begay said, “This is just a response to show solidarity for our indigenous brothers and sisters who have been here much longer than anybody else. This isn’t really an issue about being illegal because no human is illegal,” said Begay, who has Mexican and Navajo roots, emphasizing the indigenous roots of many Latino residents. “There seems to be a fear throughout the community since the raid yesterday. I think it does definitely have an impact on the economy,” she added.
The rally proceeded up and down Main Street, sticking to the sidewalks. Protesters held signs that said “Abolish ICE” and “Moab supports our Hispanic community.”
Some protesters spoke of their reasons for attending the rally. “I’m here today because the agency of ICE sends terror through our communities. It separates families and it does nothing to bring the community of Moab together,” said Libby Bailey.
Moab resident Dominique LaFleur told The Times-Independent, “Vote with your dollars. Support businesses that are keeping families together. I’m here as a community member of Moab to stand with people who see that this one little problem in our community is being echoed everywhere.”
One business owner attended the rally, but requested not to be named in the article. He explained why many business owners were hesitant to discuss the raids. “It’s bad for business,” he said.
The raid was followed by a police debrief to the Aug. 28 meeting of the Moab City Council. Chief Winder explained what was known from his organization’s perspective, emphasizing that the raid was a federal action, unaffiliated with local police.
Winder said local law enforcement received a courtesy call last Wednesday, Aug. 22, from ICE informing the police that the federal agency would be in the area. ICE did not inform the police whether agents would be conducting something as small as a routine compliance check at a restaurant or something as big as a raid with the intention of arresting large numbers of people, Winder said.
“Because ICE did not tell us specifically what they were going to do, nor have I spoken to them post-incident, I can only extrapolate that what occurred in our community was something in the middle. It does appear that ICE came to Moab looking for individuals that had been identified to them as being aggravated reentry suspects who were fugitives,” Winder said. He explained that aggravated reentry, entering the country after having been previously deported, is a felony and that the individuals “may have other associated criminal offenses with them. So there could be a dangerous individual in the community."
“My understanding is that in their attempts to contact that individual, they contacted other undocumented individuals within the community and subsequently made nine arrests. The outcome of that though, regardless of what their intent was in coming or what all happened while they were here, we immediately began to receive phone calls and were physically aware of the impact because the community really reacted. Because of the communication situation with Facebook and Twitter, etc., it just spread like wildfire.”
Local law enforcement, contrary to some rumors, were not involved in the raids, Winder said. “Local law enforcement agencies—City of Moab Police Department and other city and county agencies—are prohibited from asking a person’s status during a contact. For instance I can’t approach a person and say, are you legal or illegal, or show me your papers. Any of that kind of thing. Simply cannot. Now if we contact an individual during the normal course of our business and arrest someone for a crime, then we can take them to jail and it is in jail where they ask them the question about their nation of origin. That is what triggers oftentimes immigration involvement,” Winder said. The reason law enforcement stays out of immigration work, Winder said, is because it would be detrimental to their mission to protect all residents in the community.
“I think the worst thing we can have in our community is to have that individual be afraid to communicate the need for help… The idea that that individual might fear contacting us, local law enforcement, to seek help and assistance, would be tragic. It would also be wrong because the U.S. Supreme Court in decision after decision has upheld the concept that individuals who are here in our country regardless of their status are due the constitutional protections of due process and are deserving of the protection of law enforcement in this country.”
City Council Member Rani Derasary also spoke about the raids during her report to the council. “I’m trying to be responsible, learn more about it, help dispel some of the rumors that are going on around our community that unfortunately were extra work for our local law enforcement and multicultural center to try and dispel, and also just trying to help people figure out how to deal with some of the trauma that they’re having as a result,” she said. Derasary referred individuals needing information or services to the Moab Valley Multicultural Center.
As Winder concluded his account to the council, Council Member Mike Duncan asked whether any of the people detained were suspected of violent crimes.
“I don’t know, councilman,” Winder replied.
Mayor Emily Niehaus thanked the police chief for his words to the council and for his and Moab Valley Multicultural Center Executive Director Rhiana Medina’s work spreading information to the community.