In a low-lit church setting, about three dozen or so folks sat in pews listening intently to the people up front with a microphone. No cameras were allowed. It’s a scene that is being repeated throughout the region with greater frequency.
The folks in the room talked about the fear of being detained by enforcement agents, worries about family being left behind and the uncertainty that lies ahead.
For some, the fact that they showed up at all took no small amount of courage.
“People are afraid to attend these meetings,” said Jesse Roa of the Northeast Oregon Diversity Coalition in Hermiston. “They fear ICE showing up. The fear has amped up in the past year.”
It is that fear that is prompting groups like the Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition to travel the region to give support and advice to undocumented people living in the United States.
President Trump has made cracking down on illegal immigration his top agenda item. His rhetoric has only served to increase the fear in those in this country who are undocumented.
“The president made it clear in his executive orders: There’s no population off the table,” ICE acting director Thomas Homan said on Dec. 5. “If you’re in this country illegally, we’re looking for you and we’re going to look to apprehend you.”
ICE (Immigration Customs and Enforcement) has made a number of high-profile detentions in the recent past. Just recently, a Kansas teacher who had been in the U.S. for 30 years was detained by ICE agents while taking his daughter to school.
Abigail Scholar of the Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition spent more than an hour at the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Hermiston outlining the rights of the undocumented during Saturday’s meeting.
If stopped by an officer or agent, Scholar said, know your rights.
“Do not give any information or sign anything,” she told the crowd on Saturday. “Once you sign something, you’ve given up any right to fight your case.
“ICE is not your friend,” she continued. “Get a free lawyer if you can and don’t take the advice of ICE or anyone else’s lawyer.”
Scholar said ICE agents are supposed to provide translators if needed, but they don’t always offer one.
“If they do not provide one, ask for an interpreter,” she said. “If stopped in a vehicle or bus and you are asked for ID, you are not required to provide one unless you are driving.”
Scholar also told the audience to ask an officer or agent if they are being detained.
“If you are not being detained, you are legally entitled to walk away from the situation,” she said.
One of Saturday’s speakers was Eugenio Rojas. Without mentioning Trump by name, he took issue with the president’s mantra of ‘Make America Great Again.’
“This country is made up of all walks of immigrants,” he said. “Whether you came here today or 100 years ago, we all make this country great. We don’t have to go to extremes to make this country great. We are already great.”