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Living in fear ‘every single day’ as immigration raids wreak havoc

At 6.10am on a freezing, dark January morning, just moments before he opened Superior Tools & Equipment, Gustavo Ramirez caught a flash of blue light racing towards his shop. Shoppers were lining up outside his Norcross, Georgia, store to pick up nails, ladders and pieces of wood before a day of hard labor. He peered outside, expecting a police car to whiz by the strip mall. Instead, the car stoppedin front of the store entrance and Ramirez whipped out his cellphone camera. He knew who it was: Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Get back, sir! Get back. All right?” an Ice agent yelled at Ramirez. In cellphone footage he shot, Ramirez yelled in Spanish to someone who was being searched, telling her, “Don’t get out, hey, don’t get out [of the car].”

Ramirez had been undocumented for the first 14 years of his life in the United States and he intimately understood the fear spreading through those being detained in front of his eyes.

In this part of America’s deep south, he is far from alone in being afraid of Ice. Gwinnett county, just north of Atlanta, where Norcross is located, has an estimated 71,000 undocumented residents, nearly 8% of the county’s population.

Norcross’s streets are filled with store fronts with names in Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean. A Salvadoran panaderia sits across from a Halal meat grocer’s. A law office advertises an attorney-at-law in English and then below in two other languages: luật sư/abogado it reads.

According to a 2018 Migration Policy Institute report, the county is ranked fifth of 25 highest detainers by counties nationwide. To be an undocumented immigrant in Gwinnett county is to be part of a community living in fear as a national crackdown on immigration rolls out across America and roundups and raids become a part of every day life.

It is a situation made worse by the fierce immigration debate coursing through Georgia’s local politics where the Republican party has sought to adopt ever more extreme positions on undocumented immigrants. Earlier this year, one GOP gubernatorial hopeful, Michael Williams, launched a “Deportation Bus” tour of the state and daubed “fill this bus with illegals” on the side of the vehicle.

Williams lost his primary. But the winner, Brian Kemp, is campaigning on a Track and Deport Plan. In one of Kemp’s own campaign ads he said: “I got a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ‘em home myself.”

Ramirez said Kemp’s rhetoric doesn’t scare him any more than President Trump’s. After all, how much worse can it get, he asked. Many of his friends, clients and community are too afraid to even drive in Norcross any more. You get stopped, asked for your license, detained and sent to prison.

Gwinnett county entered into the 287 (g) program – one of six in the state – which allows the Department of Homeland Security to deputize the county’s sheriff’s office to perform the functions of federal immigration agents.

Ramirez estimates 70% of his clients are undocumented and his hardware shop would go out of business without them once word spread Ice agents were showing up to his store to detain people. “It happened to them but it could have happened to me,” Ramirez, Colombian-born but now a US citizen, said. “So all of this makes you sad, you know,” he added.

He couldn’t turn to elected officials or to the police for help. So, he sent the videos to Mario Guevara, a local immigration reporter for Mundo Hispnico that same morning. Guevara keeps nearly 300,000 loyal followers on Facebook informed of Ice vans loitering in front of apartment buildings or of an ongoing raid to stay away from in the neighborhood.

Guevara agrees with Ramirez. It doesn’t matter who becomes governor, he said. “I tell them, don’t worry, this is nothing new. With President Obama, these things happened. It’s not something new. It was happening before.” He can’t help but add in a reminder. “You know they called him [Obama] deporter-in chief?”

Alonso, from Mexico, is in Superior Tools & Equipment picking up supplies during his lunch hour for his house framing business. Undocumented, he doesn’t want to give his last name for fear of being identified. “Am I scared?,” he asked. “Of course. I’m scared walking on the streets, not just driving,” he said in Spanish. “Every single day.”

Trump wants to send all Latinos to Mexico, he added, with a smirk. “He doesn’t want any of us here. He’s like, what do you call it, the KKK [Ku Klux Klan].”

Then Alonso becomes serious. There aren’t enough people to work with him or for him. The men who used to work on homes or came in to buy wood are all being deported.

Ramirez jumps into the conversation. “There are no people,” he said.

“Almost all of us here [in Norcross] are illegal. We don’t have papers,” Alonso added.

He can’t vote, will most likely never vote in local, state or national elections. For Alonso, there is no difference between Obama and Trump and Brian Kemp.

Right behind Alonso walks in Emilio, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, who does not want to give his last name either. Having spent the last 12 years in Norcross, working in construction alongside his brothers, he thinks each day could be his last in America. The work is plentiful but living here in fear is no good, he says, under Ice’s thumb.

For both men living in the shadows, once life is lived in fear, it will always be in fear. As the rest of Georgia closely watches the historic, and what looks to be a tightly contested race, they keep an eye on the day to day moments of life they can control.

“Where is Juan? Oh, [Ice] found him. Where is Pedro? Oh, he’s in prison. Where is Francisco? Without a license. So, there are so many [other] things, and we’re affected by all of it,” Ramirez said, ticking off the conversations on his fingers in the shop in recent months.

And even with his US citizenship, Ramirez fears for his livelihood in America. You heard they’re taking away citizenship from people, right, he asked, referencing USCIS’s announcement this summer they are establishing an office to identify and denaturalize Americans suspected of cheating the system.

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