Ninaj Raoul didn’t have much time to talk when I called her on February 14. The executive director of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees was busy phoning all the organization’s pregnant clients to warn them to skip their appointments at a medical center in Brooklyn until further notice. Raoul had received word earlier in the day from a contact at the hospital that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were on site. “There are people who are not coming out of the examining rooms,” the contact had told Raoul.
The next day, a spokeswoman for Kings County said there was no truth to the report. Nonetheless, Raoul had done the responsible thing in a city of immigrants faced with a hostile federal government: tell people to be as careful as they can until safety is certain.
There’s not much certainty for New York’s undocumented these days. A City Council member had called Raoul earlier in the week to report word of raids in East Flatbush, a Brooklyn neighborhood that is home to many Haitian immigrants. There were rumors—just rumors—of immigration-enforcement traffic stops. There had been word the week before about agents setting up shop at Lehman College, a Bronx outpost of the City University of New York. On social media, some pleaded for caution in spreading the reports and rumors, but the alerts kept coming, sharpened by the reality that ICE had arrested nearly 40 New Yorkers the previous weekend.
“I can just say that there’s a lot of panic right now amongst the people that are living in the city, immigrants in particular,” Raoul said. “People are afraid—afraid to go out.”
Like other progressive mayors, New York City’s Bill de Blasio has positioned himself as a leader of the Democratic resistance to Donald Trump, with immigration policy a key part of the rallying cry. The day after the election, de Blasio declared, “We stand behind Lady Liberty with open arms to welcome immigrants and refugees. We always have and we always will.” And immigration was one of the topics de Blasio says he raised with Trump when they met at Trump Tower in mid-November.
De Blasio is not a newcomer to the immigration issue. One of his proudest accomplishments is the creation of IDNYC, an official photo ID for people who might otherwise not be eligible for most forms of identification, especially immigrants. During his first year in office he rolled back the city’s cooperation with ICE, and under his authority the city has begun funding legal representation for people in immigration detention, providing immigration-law consultations to defense lawyers in criminal cases, offering help to those wishing to become citizens, and providing assistance to New Yorkers who wanted to take advantage of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows immigrants who arrived as children to normalize their status for a number of years.
Now the challenges the undocumented face are starker, and de Blasio’s language reflects the higher stakes. “We will not deport law-abiding New Yorkers. We will not tear families apart,” the mayor said after President Trump issued his January 25 executive order authorizing a crackdown on “sanctuary cities.” After the Ninth Circuit ruling in which a three-judge panel ruled to maintain a stay on Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant travel ban, de Blasio declared, “Here in New York—the safest big city in America—we will always protect our neighbors, no matter where they came from or when they got here.” De Blasio didn’t mention “immigrant” or “immigration” in his February 13 State of the City speech, but he made obvious reference to the rising sense of alarm among the undocumented. “There’s a lot of people in the city right now who fear for what’s happening….,” he told the crowd. “I want to say clearly to all of them, New York City will have your back.”