Putting Help on I.C.E.

When Will We Know?”—an ongoing series

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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confirmed on February 10 that ICE agents this week raided homes and workplaces across the nation in an immigration enforcement crackdown code-named “Operation Cross Check.”

The Washington Post reported that the search for undocumented immigrants became “unusually intense” this week and listed the locations as: Vista, Pomona and Compton, California; Austin, Dallas, and Pflugerville, Texas; Alexandria and Annandale, Virginia; Charlotte and Burlington, North Carolina; Plant City, Florida; the Hudson Valley region of New York; and Wichita, Kansas.

(I live in the Hudson Valley. The local media has not yet identified the location of any ICE raids that took place in the Hudson Valley.)

ICE does not usually release statements about its activities before a mission is completed, but many rumors proliferated about Operation Cross Check, so an ICE official, Virginia Kice, reported that any numbers of arrested individuals that the bureau might announce are “preliminary given that the five-day operation concluded only hours ago”—which confirmed that the raids were taking place and that the operation was finished—and that more would be revealed on Monday.

Kice told The Daily Beast that thirty-eight were arrested in the Los Angeles area on February 9 alone, and multiple sources report that as many as 160 individuals (one source old me the number is “200+”) were arrested in the operation. Also detained by ICE and its affiliates this week was any ability to get help to those being held, as several human rights activists have learned.

Here is that story:

An Iraqi family of five that happens to reside in southeast Texas was detained by ICE this week.

Representative Joaquin Castro of San Antonio confirmed in a Tweet that he was aware that the operation was under way in his part of Texas and that he was concerned:

The Iraqi man was sent to one facility, and his wife and their three children were sent to another: ICE’s detention center in Karnes County, Texas. The woman, who has not been identified, and her three children do not speak English.

A Texas charity, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), which has seven offices in Texas, reached out for help on behalf of the mother and three children. No one at the detention center could speak the woman’s language, and no one with RAICES could either, so the notice from RAICES read, in essence, Can anyone who speaks Arabic please contact us and, if possible, travel to the detention center to help this family?

A colleague of mine took up the cause, and he sent out a notice on his Facebook and Twitter feeds to any and all Arabic speakers who might be of help. The good news is this: a couple thousand people stepped up and offered help, in part thanks to the good that can come from activists employing social media. By conservative estimates, my friend’s publication of RAICES’ request for help might have been seen by 2.8 million people.

However, something odd happened on the way to the good news: the notice that my colleague sent out, which gave the location of the detention center and a phone number for RAICES, was squelched. His Facebook post was transformed. He originally posted an image of a map of southeast Texas with a marker that pinpointed the location of the center along with a brief statement that gave the story about the detained Iraqi family and the phone number for RAICES. After a few minutes, when he re-checked it, he saw this:

Just a map of Texas. No reason. Screenshot courtesy Raymond Johansen. (Click for full size.)

Just a map of Texas. No reason. Screenshot courtesy Raymond Johansen. (Click for full size.)

His post was now an unexplained image of a map of southeast Texas, as if my colleague, who lives in Norway, wanted his friends and followers to see a map of southeast Texas for no reason at all. The details were missing.

Is this the only example of news and/or a request for help being silenced online this week? It is the only one that I have been made aware of. The publication of this article might bring others to light. Does ICE or some affiliate keep an eye on social media? Does it want news and/or requests for help to be silenced? ICE public relations officers wanted the operation to be treated as a rumor, but the rumors started to be reported as news, so ICE was forced to confirm the existence of Operation Cross Check.

On January 25, the U.S. President signed an executive order titled, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” which expanded ICE’s definition of reasons for deportation: under previous administrations, ICE “prioritized those who had been convicted of serious crimes, were considered national security threats or were recent arrivals,” but the new executive order targets not only criminals “but also—among others—those who’ve been accused of crimes but not convicted, those who have engaged in document fraud, and those who ‘in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.'”

Accused, not convicted.

As with the new president’s directionless directive that blocked travel from seven specific countries, this directive describes a vaporously vague ideal but gives little in the way of directions to those bureaucrats who are now tasked with implementing it. Would help for an Iraqi family in Texas be something bureaucrats might want to impede?

Yes, it would. Because ICE’s bureaucrats (just as Homeland Security’s bureaucrats in airports across the nation last week) have been handed a task that vastly expands their job description and the number of people to be processed and the amount of paperwork, with no increase in agents hired. ICE has no interest in outsiders watching as it figures out how to implement an insane expansion of the organization’s mandate. The current administration asked ICE to throw bureaucratic caution to the wind and arrest as many people as its agents could, with details like whether or not this or that individual ought to be arrested to be worked out later. And no matter how many were arrested nationally this week—more than 200 according to my sources—ICE and the new president will be sure on Monday morning to inform the public of the one or two who perhaps qualified under the old rules and definitions as arrest-worthy.

My colleague’s post was “stopped by someone with power enough to mess with Twitter and Facebook within half an hour.”

The phrase “fake news” has been weaponized in recent months, as more than one writer has pointed out. Because the media landscape shifts so quickly, we lack a semiotics that shifts just as quickly, that keeps us confident in understanding that this news source is valid or that news source is “click-bait-y” or otherwise untrustworthy. And because several popular social media resources (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, VK) want their users to regard them as trustworthy resources at all times, they are asserting themselves as the arbiters of what is real news and what may be “fake news,” and thus they can be manipulated into silencing real news or even replacing it with fake.

ICE does not want you to know that an Iraqi family with three children is in detention right now in Texas. Especially if it turns out that the family should have been able to spend this Valentine’s weekend together and in peace. Of course, if it turns out that the head of the family has a speeding ticket (not a conviction), which might land him a deportation back to Iraq (and potentially a conflict zone), ICE’s public relations arm will release a statement for the press with details about a wanted man who earned a deportation because of the crackdown.

An ICE employee was not even needed to actively squelch my colleague’s post on Facebook. ICE simply needed to inform Facebook that certain phrases ought to trigger certain algorithms which would identify certain posts as “fake news.” This would alter or silence those posts. Especially if an activist with an audience reach of 2.8 million wanted to inform his audience about some people in need of help, not from a natural disaster but from a directionless directive send down from the President of the United States.

For those who use social media for activism, to help the cause of justice or to simply help people in need, it is important to know how insidious authoritarianism is. Autocrats in our current era will not march into newspaper offices and destroy printing presses, as they did once upon a time; they will simply shame and harass members of the media into silence. They will cajole their credulous supporters into not believing credible evidence and into a resistance of critical independent thinking.

In the case of this one story, the Iraqi family in Texas, the word got out and help was offered. Were there others? Are there others? As I wrote at the top, I live in a region in which this week’s crackdown took place and I have yet to see a report much less a rumor that identifies the name of the city in which undocumented immigrants were detained. There is probably a story similar to the one reported above, but right here where I live, yet without the happy news of a translator being found.

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Thanks to Raymond Johansen and Nathan Dimoff for their help with this article.

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