“There is a lot of fear here from those with documents and without that ICE is just going to show up. There is a deep fear that ICE has this wide authority to do what they want, and they do. The border gets closer to Saratoga Springs every day and the fear of ICE swooping down and taking people out of their homes grows more real by the moment,” says Diana Barnes, a Skidmore College professor who teaches about the US-Mexico border and spends time on the backstretch at the horse racing track in Saratoga Springs.
For two consecutive years, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has made its presence felt in Saratoga leading up to track season. A result of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, 36 immigrants, including restaurant and farm workers, were arrested between June and November last year for what ICE has described as “administrative violations.”
Last year, after major outcry about how the raids had disrupted the profitable tourist season, ICE agents fell back into the darkness as the races took place, only to return again.
Barnes says 1,200 people, many of them Latin American immigrants, live in rundown housing on the backstretch of the race course during track season. An immigrant population also works at area farms and many local restaurants.
Arrests sent fear throughout the immigrant community, including those legally in the country, that made some hesitate to work in the city when local businesses need them most. Barnes said many backstretch workers spent last summer isolated, sequestered at the track, afraid to venture out to buy groceries or visit friends.
“In a small town, that makes a big difference,” then-Mayor Joanne Yepsen told the Washington Post of the arrests last August. “They were here taking jobs that the restaurants were having a hard time filling with anybody else and still are having a hard time filling.”
In late June of this year, ICE arrested two immigrants, sparking concern within the community that a slew of arrests would follow. “ICE doesn’t give you any notice,” Yepsen told The Alt. “It is discouraging for any mayor to learn after the fact that someone was picked up by a group of men riding around in an unmarked white van. It is unsettling for the community.”
The initial raids didn’t just spark fear. They also sparked a movement to shelter immigrants from ICE and provide other assistance. Yepsen created a human rights taskforce that included Barnes, activists, immigrants and other community members.
Advocates, clergy, and politicians came together to create an assistance network and to offer shelter in a local church. Terence Diggory of the Saratoga Immigration Coalition says that the Presbyterian-Congregational Church is prepared to offer shelter to any immigrant who needs it. “The Sanctuary remains open. We have had inquiries, but in the course of events we have been able to help with connecting the individuals to legal services or other help.”
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Saratoga Springs is also offering sanctuary.
Diggory says the coalition wants to do more than just provide sanctuary. They want to help immigrants function in Saratoga–a town known for its wealth and prohibitive cost of living. “One of the reasons we took a stand is it offers us a chance to make these folks feel welcome in our community. We aren’t just making space but helping immigrants in other ways. Our programs are ongoing through our church,” said Diggory.
Volunteers offer immigrants and low-income residents transportation to medical appointments, legal meetings, and work. The network is also involved in connecting immigrants to English language programs, for which they are currently looking for volunteers. Diggory’s church is also looking for volunteers who are interested in serving as companions to immigrants who may need to take up sanctuary to avoid arrest by ICE.
Diggory and his fellow advocates are concerned that ICE has sowed deep fear in immigrants who are here with the proper paperwork and those who are not. Barnes and Diggory say they are troubled by ICE’s tactics, which appear to them to include racial profiling and have increasingly ignored previously established boundaries and norms. Incidents of ICE agents arresting immigrants in schools, at immigration hearings, and legal appearances have proliferated under the Trump administration.
“They are scared to death because there is racial profiling going on,” Barnes told the Times Union in a June 21, 2018 article,” “A worker was stopped in front of Starbucks and asked for ID. Another was stopped driving. When he showed him a California license, he was asked for a second ID. They didn’t need a second ID.”
ICE officials say their enforcement actions have been “targeted.”
Barnes says she supports the sanctuary movement but is concerned that ICE may not abide by established norms and could end up raiding a church. “I believe people who might need it would find some comfort there even though they are aware that they may or may not be safe there,” she said.
Law enforcement agents with a warrant can pursue a suspect into a church and it is illegal under the Immigration and Nationality Act for anyone to knowingly harbor an undocumented immigrant.
However, raiding a church would likely lead to massively negative press for ICE and the Trump administration.
Public opinion appears to strongly be turning against ICE locally. On Friday, several immigrants rights groups protested outside of ICE headquarters in Latham. ICE officials preemptively closed the office for the day and released a statement: “For the safety of the public and our employees, USCIS, like other tenants at this location, opted to close due to anticipated protests, in accordance with office policy. What these demonstrators may not realize, is that they are actually hurting the people they are trying to help when their actions prevent immigration officers from doing their jobs, adjudicating benefits for those who have applied and now are unable to attend their scheduled appointments.”
Immigrants showed up to the building for various appointments throughout the day. (ICE says it alerted people of the closing.)
Meanwhile, pro-immigrant rallies have occurred across the region, including two in Saratoga. Two college students organized a march on July 8. Barnes says about 100 people participated. People sitting in restaurant patios along the route cheered them as they went, she said.
Yepsen said she feels that the community sees ICE and the separation of families at the border as morally wrong–not as a partisan issue. “Under this administration, arrests have gone up and the result has been the arrest of people who are active in our workforce and who are actively seeking citizenship. The employers wouldn’t have hired them without paperwork. This isn’t creating jobs. It is creating mayhem and separating families right here in Saratoga Springs.”
The former mayor is now involved in another immigration flashpoint, as she’s helping The Legal Project in its mission to assist the hundreds of ICE detainees at Albany County jail get legal advice and other assistance.
The Albany County jail is at maximum capacity with 330 immigrants, who were detained on immigration charges on the border with Mexico. The Legal Project is soliciting volunteers to provide legal advice and translation services. The Alt spoke to a three volunteers who say they are troubled by what they saw there. Many of the immigrants were disoriented, unaware of where they were. “We drew them maps to try to give them a sense of what had happened,” one translator told The Alt on condition of anonymity.
Many of the detainees, from as far away as Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Columbia, had yet to be interviewed about the threats they faced back home, which is required by US law to determine whether they have right to asylum.
Lawyers were forced to rush detainees through their horror stories about gun and gang violence, the execution of their loved ones and how they left their children behind to look for a new life, explaining to them that they needed to focus on the legal challenges ahead of them.
Yepsen says she is in the process of finding out what else the detainees might need besides legal services and plans to inform the community as those needs arise.
In an exclusive report in November, The Alt revealed that Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple had sought a partnership with ICE that would have seen local officers trained to detain immigrants but had pulled out after outcry from local advocates. However, Apple is now in an arrangement where he and the county jail are paid $119 a day for each detainee.
Barnes says she expects ICE will make its presence felt in Saratoga again with a “show of force.”
“It’s not hard to find ICE in Saratoga Springs,” says Barnes. “They hang out at the track, their vans show up when you least expect it and it is a long summer,” she said ominously.
Yepsen says that ICE has already disrupted the lives of many Saratogians with their actions and left scars that are not likely to heal anytime soon. “Every time someone is picked up, it’s usually brown men who are forced to leave their families, or who are now not working. These are people who were here trying to become citizens and doing the right thing. Every one of these people who were picked up were known by their first names. They were dishwashers, chefs, people making real contributions to our small community. They were members of a broader family in Saratoga Springs and we will never see them again.”