St. Louis immigrants on edge as federal deportation sweep gets underway

St. Louis immigrants on edge as federal deportation sweep gets underway

BEVO MILL – United States immigration authorities say they have begun a national sweep to reportedly capture and deport more than 1 million undocumented immigrants. St. Louis is not one of the ten major cities federal agents are targeting, but fear has been stoked in the small Latino population in south St. Louis along with other immigrant groups across the nation.

The operation is likely to be one of the largest conducted by federal authorities since President Donald Trump took office, and it could be one of the biggest immigration operations in U.S. history if it is fully carried out. With the president’s flair for exaggeration and dramatic statements, some don’t believe that will happen.

“It’s a statement from a president that doesn’t have any credibility,” immigration attorney Rick Hein from the Hein Law Firm said in an interview.  “This is a fellow who talks, and talks, and talks, and doesn’t follow through on a lot of his statements.”

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli, one million people with final orders of removal will be targeted first. Others with accelerated cases may be in the agency’s crosshairs as well. 

Trump first announced the raids a couple of weeks ago in his usual Twitter manner. Serious blowback appeared to have persuaded the president to postpone the raids for two weeks, asking Congress to solve the immigration issue meanwhile.

According to sources in the federal government, the operation will be conducted in 10 major U.S. cities. Chicago is the nearest to St. Louis.

It is unclear if St. Louis’ local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office will conduct operations here. That is something that has many guessing.

“When we see broad threats like that, we know that the damage is done regardless of whether or not the threat is ultimately enforced,” Sara John of St. Louis’ Inter-Faith Coalition on Latin America said.

The IFCLA, based at 5021 Adkins Avenue, is a nonprofit advocacy group working for social justice and human rights for immigrants in St. Louis and elsewhere.

“The instant wave of fear and chaos and panic and stress and trauma that floods through the community is devastating,” John said, “and it’s devastating when you hear an announcement that you know is going to lead to that.”

The IFCLA, the ACLU of Missouri and other local immigrant rights groups work to help migrants understand their rights under the law and organize strategies to keep families together.  

St. Louis is unique in some ways in the U.S. when it comes to immigration. Although Latinos still comprise only a small number in the metro area, their group has seen steady growth over the last decade. 

Contrary to popular belief, over 70 percent of the Hispanic population in St. Louis is American-born and has had some higher education. Area Hispanics also point out  an entrepreneurial spirit, with more than 8,000 businesses operating in Missouri. They say those businesses generate about $64 billion a year. 

According to St. Louis University professor Ness Sandoval, there is a reason why American-born and immigrant Latinos are coming to St. Louis.

“St. Louis is unique in the sense that it is attracting more Latinos and immigrants that have higher educational levels, and I think it has to do with the business mix in St. Louis, with Bayer, Boeing, Wells Fargo, Edward Jones,” he said.  “They are attracting people to come here, to move to St. Louis; they have a higher educational attainment.”

Sandoval, a demographer studying Latino trends in Missouri, also points to the more affordable cost of living and housing as another reason why people are moving to the Show-Me State from places such as California or Texas.

“It’s very expensive to live in California, it’s very expensive to live in New York,” he pointed out. “And so people are trying to live their American dream, and they’re moving to other places throughout the United States, and St. Louis. For Latinos (St. Louis) has started to see an increase in this population.”

Missouri’s business climate is changing, and a new spurt of growth is helping the city revitalize. However, the state legislature has been working on measures that could make Missouri less appealing to migrants.

Bills such as SB 64 are making their way through the halls of power in Jefferson City. The proposed Senate bill seeks to give law enforcement broad powers in detaining and questioning residents’ citizenship status. 

The bill has been described as a green light for racial profiling and is just one example of how critics say the Republican-led Missouri Legislature is trying to create an unwelcoming environment for Latinos.

“The border is everywhere,” Alicia Hernandez of Missouri’s ACLU chapter said.  “A lot of these bad policies and laws that we see along border states, they are all over the country, and they are happening here in Missouri.”

It’s no stretch of the imagination to envision why undocumented Latinos may distrust law enforcement. But the city of St. Louis has held a policy of not cooperating with federal agencies including ICE in executing raids on immigrants. 

Even so, a trust gap exists that has been hard to overcome.

One big problem has been the underreporting of crime. When undocumented Latinos fall victim to crime, most choose not to report for fear of coming into contact with the police.

“We respond and investigate crimes,” St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said. “We do not involve other agencies, any federal agencies or any others. We try to resolve and keep people safe.”

Demographically, Latino involvement in crime is comparatively low in St. Louis. 

“The great majority of immigrants that are in the United States and in St. Louis specifically are here for two purposes,” Hein, the immigration attorney, said.  “One is to work, and two is to be able to support their families.”

Hernandez from the ACLU said area residents could help protect immigrants.

“One thing that I always stress with any community member is that we are not spectators,” she said. “We should hold our legislators accountable and be constantly engaging and mobilizing your neighbors, your community to do the same.”

Hein said he had a clear understanding of why migrants came to St. Louis.

The folks I deal with on a day-to-day basis are good, hard-working people who are trying to make ends meet and support their families.”