Don’t Open the Door
Elena and Efraín had a quiet life in LaBelle, a small town in rural Florida. They were raising three children, Efraín had a stable job… It was the American dream. But a minor traffic accident put everything they had built in jeopardy.
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[Thomas Homan]: Thank you very much, sir…
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
[Thomas Homan]: Today’s a good day for ICE. Today’s a good day for Florida Law Enforcement. Today’s a very good day for the residents of the state of Florida.
[Daniel]: Today we’ll start here: January 2018, at a press conference for ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the US agency that detains and deports undocumented immigrants. The interim director of ICE at the time, Thomas Homan, is announcing new immigration agreements with 17 counties in the state of Florida: the Basic Ordering Agreements, abbreviated with the initials BOA.
[Thomas Homan]: The BOA process affords ICE up to 48 hours to pick up removable aliens after their scheduled release from state or local custody and reimburses the service provider, in this case, the local law enforcement jurisdiction.
[Daniel]: By signing this agreement, ICE delegates its authority to local police so they can detain people who they suspect of being in the country illegally. The idea is that ICE and local police forces will work together to fight immigration.
[Thomas Homan]: Local partnerships and local cooperation are essential to our work and vital to ensuring public safety and strengthening national security.
[Daniel]: I’ll translate: Homan says cooperation is essential to strengthen national security.
[Thomas Homan]: These agreements will make communities here in the Sunshine State safer and more secure from criminal activity perpetrated by individuals with no legal standing to be in this country in the first place.
[Daniel]: That it will protect the people of Florida from criminals who are in the country illegally.
Today we’re going to see how this agreement and others like it have impacted the Latino community in one corner of the United States. In southeastern Florida.
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[Daniel]: Our reporter Gilda Di Carli went to the region several times, to try and understand the impact.
[Gilda Di Carli]: Florida. Maybe you’re imagining white-sand beaches, and yes, there’s that, of course.
But in the interior, far from the coast, the reality is different. We’re talking about Florida farm country, rural areas where communities of laborers work harvesting tomatoes, zucchinis, and strawberries. The vast majority of them are Latino immigrants.
We decided to change several people’s names in this story. I think the reasons for that are going to be quite clear.
So, I want to introduce you to Elena. She’s Mexican, but she came to the US 16 years ago, and she’s spent 10 years living in LaBelle, a small, peaceful town with fewer than 5.000 residents. That’s where she met her husband. Let’s call him Efraín: not very tall, dark-haired, clean shaven. And when I ask Elena how they met, she blushes and tells me:
[Elena]: I don’t even remember anymore! (laughter) I don’t even remember.
[Gilda]: They’ve been married for more than a decade, and they have three children, all born in the US. Efraín, according to Elena, is a good dad. Elena says the kids are very attached to him . He’s attentive and caring, the kind of dad who has no problem getting down on the floor to play with the kids.
[Elena]: He gives them what they want, what they ask for. Sometimes, he can’t, but other times he can, and that’s the way we are. He’s always looking after the kids. With the little one, he plays cars with him. And they play hide-and-seek. He goes and he… like that. But here in the family, with us, in the house and plays with them a lot.
[Gilda]: And in their home, together, is where they feel most safe.
Efraín has a job in construction.
[Elena]: What he’s working for here is that if we have enough money left over and we all go out to eat together, he brings us. And… and, well, we’ve always been together.
[Gilda]: And for years that was their life, the life he and Elena built. The kids, work, a normal life. A peaceful life.
Their house has a yard that they share with some other neighbors. Each of the children has an electric toothbrush. The oldest has his own TV. You could say they have those amenities that a middle-class life in the US affords you.
They have their challenges, of course, like anyone.
So, one afternoon in April of 2018, they left their eight-year-old son’s soccer tournament.
[Elena]: He had just bought chips, like Sabritas, and it was something… that the boy wanted because he was feeling happy about the soccer because, well… the… the… his team had won. And he really likes soccer.
[Gilda]: They were going back home in their truck, feeling good. Efraín was driving and talking about the match with his son. While Elena and the other two kids…
[Elena]: Were watching a movie that… that he rented for them so… so they would be entertained watching TV.
[Gilda]: As soon as they turned onto the highway…
A car came up rather fast and ran into them. The truck was in very bad shape.
[Elena]: The kids were crying and crying, and the oldest said that… there was a bump on his head.
[Gilda]: He was complaining about the blow to his head. And so Efraín, desperate:
[Elena]: Well, he… he called 911 and well… when you call, the police comes.
[Gilda]: They arrived a few minutes later and took Efraín aside to talk to him privately. They started speaking to him in English, a language that Efrían doesn’t understand very well. When his teenage daughter came to translate, the police motioned to her not to come over.
And so the police asked Efraín for his documentation.
And here’s the problem. Efraín is undocumented and doesn’t have a driver’s license, so he gave them what he had: his Mexican ID.
There are twelve states in the US that issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, but Florida isn’t one of them. Efraín didn’t have the registration for the car either. Elena told me that Efraín almost never drove, that he avoided it as much as he could, but the soccer tournament was far away, so he felt like he had no other choice.
Meanwhile, the two guys that were in the other car, the car that hit them, showed the police their IDs and left with no problem.
The accident hadn’t been Efraín’s fault, but to the police, those details were irrelevant. The arrested Efraín and then, in Spanish, they gave Elena the address of the jail where they were he was going to be held.
The accident happened two weeks before I met Elena in May of 2018. And Efraín was still detained.
[Elena]: It’s very hard for me because… for the kids… because the other… the oldest boy asks about him a lot. That he wants him back, that when is he getting out. He comes home from school and asks if he’s back yet. In the morning too, he asks if he’s going to get out yet. If I need… how much money do I need to get him out of there.
[Gilda]: Driving without a license is an offense in some areas, but it’s not so serious. Even for Efraín. The arrest after the accident was the second time he had been arrested for driving without a license. It had already happened to him in 2011. But —and this is key— in 2011, Basic Ordering Agreements didn’t exist. So, he paid a fine, and that was that.
But as of February 2018, in Lee County —where Efraín had his accident— the Basic Ordering Agreements were already in effect.
[Isabel Sousa-Rodríguez]: Basically, they’re using the immigration situation in the US as a national crisis to call for support from local agencies.
[Gilda]: This is Isabel Sousa-Rodríguez, a regional organizer from the Florida Immigrant Coalition, an NGO that focuses on strengthening immigrant rights in the state of Florida. Sousa Rodríguez says the argument ICE uses is…
[Isabel]: They’re saying they don’t have enough officers. We need you to let us use your officers, your resources, your jails, your cars, your radios, all of your services. So, it’s a temporary loan of… for the use of… of those services.
[Gilda]: And ICE pays the local agencies: 50 dollars for every person they detain for up to a maximum of 48 hours.
[Isabel]: There are places where they change the immigrant’s uniform from one color to another just to distinguish that they’re no longer in local custody, but rather in federal custody.
[Gilda]: Under this agreement, the local police are extensions of ICE. And the transition from local to federal custody happens in the same jail.
[Isabel]: First of all, you’re arresting and holding in custody a person who, in many cases, probably has no criminal record. Maybe they arrested them while they were leaving a grocery store bringing their children dinner, uh… but when they arrest them, they treat them like drug traffickers.
[Gilda]: The argument in favor of the Basic Ordering Agreements assumes that people like Efraín are criminals, that when they detain someone who’s driving without a license, they’re protecting the community from a dangerous criminal. But Efraín doesn’t have a violent history. It’s the opposite. He’s a hard-working father.
[Daniel]: We’ll be back after the break.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón. I’m Daniel Alarcón Before the break we heard about a recent agreement that ICE made with local police agencies in several counties in Florida.
But next to Lee County, where Efraín was arrested, there’s a county called Collier County, where the local police have a long history of collaboration with ICE.
Gilda continues the story.
[Gilda]: The Collier County Sheriff’s Office has had a contract with ICE since 2007. It’s like what Sousa-Rodríguez explained before. This one is called the 287(g), and it’s authorized by a section of immigration law from 1996. It’s a little complicated, but, in short, under this contract, ICE trains local agents in order to delegate federal immigration authority to them. In other words, a police officer becomes a de facto ICE agent.
In January of 2017, in his first week as president, Donald Trump signed an executive order to push forward the 287(g) —and it worked. He’s signed 40 new contracts in the country, doubling the size of the program in a very short time.
Now there are agencies in 20 states that have signed this kind of contract with ICE. The idea of 287(g) —like the Basic Ordering Agreements— is to broaden this federal agency’s reach. It that sense, it has been successful.
And in Collier County, success is measured in deportation orders: more than 4.000 in five years. Quickly, the county came to be ranked among the top 15 most active in the country.
And you can feel these 4.000 deportations.
[Gloria Padilla]: Fear of going out on the streets, people are very afraid of driving. People are very afraid of going to the Winn-Dixie. You don’t know when they’re going to stop you.
[Gilda]: Gloria has lived in southeast Florida for 40 years. She’s one of the coordinators of Redlands Christian Migrant Association, an NGO that focuses on educating children —mostly Latino children— who live in rural areas without many resources. Efraín and Elena’s youngest son goes to kindergarten at the organization where Gloria works.
Before, everything was pretty predictable. You knew what the police were doing, how to stay out of trouble, how to live. There was a tacit agreement between the farms that needed the labor, the workers who needed jobs, and the authorities who accepted the situation because they did. But not anymore. Gloria mentions Immokalee, a city in the county with a sizeable Latino presence.
[Gloria]: Immokalee has changed a lot because before we didn’t have to worry about immigration.
[Gilda]: Gloria says it feels like a constant threat. And it’s also confusing. Quite confusing. You drive through the country and all of a sudden you cross an invisible border, and you’re in another county. And the rules on the other side of the line can be different. This also makes immigrants anxious.
According to Gloria, in Collier County, the police put checkpoints on the street a few times a month.
[Gloria]: I know that they aren’t doing it to see if their car is working alright or if they have a license. I know what they’re doing… because it’s the contract they have with Collier County.
[Gilda]: Gloria and her colleagues try to guide immigrants. She spends a lot of time driving through the area. If, for example, she sees a police officer parked near a stop light, she sends a text message to groups of immigrants to warn them.
[Gloria]: Watch out, there’s a police car stopped on 82. We don’t know what it’s doing there. Just be careful about how fast you’re going. Turn on your lights, everything you need to do.
[Gilda]: If they come across a police checkpoint…
[Gloria]: They’re checking here. If you can avoid this street, go and get somewhere else.
[Gilda]: In April 2018 the employees of Redlands Christian Migrant Association met with parents who are immigrants.
[Norelia Sánchez]: Where are you from?
[Gilda]: Norelia Sánchez is leading the meeting. She greets the families as they come in, always with a smile. It’s like her presence alone gives them a certain sense of calm. Norelia works as a support worker for immigrant families. She’s the person in charge of talking about immigration at meetings like this one.
[Norelia]: We have a lot of diversity. We have a lot of people from different areas. Michoacán, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Guatemala, and… I already forgot some others. But it’s a pleasure to be here.
[Gilda]: This is the scene: 40 parents sitting at tables in a school cafeteria. They’re eating spaghetti and salad while Norelia tries to speak with a microphone that isn’t working. One of Norelia’s colleagues has to sit on the mic’s cable for it to sound OK.
Despite the smiles and warm greetings, Norelia’s posture is rigid, and she speaks with a sense of urgency. She asks them where they’re from, to break the ice. But then she gets straight to the point. Immigration.
[Norelia]: Immigration can come to your job, or to your house, or they can stop you. Where else? Driving, right?
[Gilda]: Norelia reminds them of their rights?
[Norelia]: If an officer comes and gives you a document and says… uh… “Sign this document here for all this to end plain and simple.” You have the right to say, “No, I want to speak to a lawyer.” Because what you could be signing is basically your deportation.
[Gilda]: She also tells them they have the right to remain silent. And then she hands out a laminated pink card that details these rights. Then she asks:
[Norelia]: So, if I go and knock on your door, if I’m an officer, are you going to open the door?
[Gilda]: Some of them shake their heads saying “no.”
[Norelia]: Exactly. If you are driving and I ask you what country you’re from, do I have the right to do that?
[Norelia]: Exactly. Exactly.
[Gilda]: And then, she hammers home the fact that the contracts between ICE and the police vary depending on the place. Which complicates the situation even more.
[Norelia]: Who is going north this season? Who’s leaving here to go north? For work?
[Gilda]: North, in other words, north of Collier County, for the strawberry harvest. She’s referring to the migration that many workers make in the agricultural season. Thousands of Latinos move all over the state and the region with every harvest.
[Norelia]: Now, there are 17 new counties that just… just… uh, basically it’s something similar to what I just explained about the 287(g), but it’s a new contract.
[Gilda]: Norelia is referring to the basic ordering agreements. Even though the two agreements work differently, Norelia doesn’t make a significant distinction between the two of them, because the impact on the community is the same.
So, regardless of where they go to work, to buy food, to bring their kids to school, Norelia’s main piece of advice is this:
[Norelia]: Prepare yourselves. Because we are, like I just explained, dealing with an administration that is very difficult. Do you have any questions for me? About what I just explained?
[Gilda]: The audience answers with silence.
Around July 4th, 2018 —three months after the meeting— there’s a wave of posts on Facebook warning of a stronger presence of immigration officers in the area, including the Lee and Collier Counties.
[Woman]: On 41st and Bayshore there are two undercover police cars.
ICE is at the Azteca picking up people left and right! Stay safe people.
[Gilda]: Some Facebooks groups weren’t originally for this: they were informal groups for selling clothes, appliances, furniture. So where they put the object, it says “ICE,” and where they put the price, it says “Free.”
[Woman 2]: Golden Gate friends, don’t go by the Circle K on Santa Barbara and Hunter. They’re cleaning up.
ICE in Crestview. Let your loved ones know, please. Don’t open any doors or sign anything.
[Gilda]: To Gloria, these kinds of messages show the solidarity that there is in the community.
[Gloria]: We have that kind of communication in the community. To be able to get out of… of… of this. To help people.
[Gilda]: The agreements between ICE and local police in Florida counties have had an impact that can’t be denied: it’s fear. And you can see it in the relationship between Latinos and the police. They’re reporting fewer cases of domestic violence and fewer assaults and thefts because they’re afraid of being deported.
[Rene Gonzales]: When people speak with me, when they… when they first meet me: “Oh, well, they told me that I can’t report anything.” “Ma’am, ma’am, who told you that? -No, you can report anything you want.”
[Gilda]: This is Rene Gonzales, a lieutenant in Collier County.
[Rene]: And a lot of the time, I hear people who tell me: “Oh no, lieutenant. You don’t know what’s happening there because people don’t want to tell you.”
[Gilda]: Lt. Gonzales is dark-haired, short, and he has a big smile.
[Rene]: At home, my parents were from… they’re Tejanos . So, we spoke, as they say, Spanglish. But we tried to, you know, speak the best we can. And it’s not perfect, but I try.
[Gilda]: He’s lived in Florida for 50 years, and he’s worked for the Sheriff’s Office for 35.
He started out as a police officer, and then he became a narcotics detective; then, patrol sergeant, narcotic sergeant, and finally he left to work in what they call “minority affairs.” It’s a rather small office.
[Rene]: It’s called the Minority Affairs Bureau. It’s just one person. That person is me (laughs).
[Gilda]: In this role, Lt. Gonzales spends a lot of time in his car, driving from meeting to meeting in several towns in the county to strengthen ties with the community. In other words, encouraging immigrants to report crimes.
He also gives talks to young people, goes to domestic abuse shelters, and meets every once in a while with organizations that work directly with the community. He’s been doing this for 10 years, but it’s a job that has its frustrations.
[Rene]: I always try to invite the public, and the public doesn’t always come.
[Gilda]: Out of fear, of course. But to him, it’s the activists that end up creating that fear.
[Rene]: I think there are people who scare the public. I don’t know who they are, but I know there are people who want to get rid of 287(g).
[Gilda]: When the lieutenant has meetings with or meets immigrants on the street, he tells them they should adapt to the 287(g) program.
[Rene]: If you don’t have a license, please don’t drive. Don’t drive. I tell them: “Look, I know that you have to go to work. I don’t know how much a bike costs —I say—, 100 dollars?” I tell them: “How much did you pay to come to this country? You paid a lot more.”
[Gilda]: I mean, yes. On a bike, the police aren’t going to stop you and ask for your license. But to get to work in a county like Collier, that’s not at all realistic. A lot of immigrants have to commute 15 to 30 kilometers in temperatures that can reach up to 33 degrees Celsius —more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit— or more. That just can’t be done on a bike.
The lieutenant also recommends that they use public transport. But the buses are slow, and they could be waiting an hour and a half for one to come. And they don’t cover the whole county.
Some residents told me that they are using the buses despite their limitations. But many continue to drive without a license because if they don’t, they don’t get to work and their children don’t get to school, and they can’t meet the demands of daily life in such a rural area.
Aside from these alternatives, Gonzales says his hands are tied. The pressure to implement the program comes from the White House, from the Trump administration.
[Rene]: I tell people: “Look, you know who the new head of the entire government is.”
[Gilda]: Gonzales insists that, in general, if you act like a “good citizen,” you don’t have to worry.
[Rene]: If you commit a crime, we have to… you know, that’s not something we can control. And while you come to work here, to improve yourself, to give your family a better future, we don’t care if you have something that says I was born in the US or I wasn’t. I tell them: “No. And the police almost… if you aren’t doing anything wrong, they aren’t going to… they have no reason to stop you.”
[Elena]: Hmmm… Wel…
[Gilda]: I sat down with Elena in her living room in May of 2018. Her daughter was looking at her phone, very concentrated, looking at us out of the corner of her eye from the couch. She didn’t say much.
Her two-year-old little brother was sleeping on his back next to her. Her other brother was watching TV in his room and popped in from time to time to grab a mandarin, to see what his mom was doing.
Elena told me a little about what happened with Efraín after the car accident.
[Elena]: They took him to one and about two days later, they moved him to another.
[Gilda]: While we were talking, someone knocked on the door. It was a hard, forceful knock. The whole family turned to the door, terrorized.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Norelia’s advice, the advice she gave that afternoon in the cafeteria:
[Norelia]: If I go and knock on your door, if I’m an official, are you going to open the door?
[Gilda]: The stress and anxiety were palpable.
[Elena]: Wait, don’t open it, mami.
[Gilda]: “Wait,” Elena says as her daughter approaches the door. “Don’t open it, mami.”
Everyone was tense. Elena’s daughter got on a chair to look out the peephole.
And suddenly she smiles. All of the anxiety vanishes. It’s some neighbors coming to bring them watermelon.
Is it your friend? Ah.
[Elena]: Thanks, dear! Tell your mom thank you.
I can’t… I tell them not to open the door… the kids… if they don’t know who it is.
[Gilda]: Since the accident, Elena and her children are more alert —and more afraid— when someone knocks on the door.
Because the truth is I felt it too. I heard that knock, I saw Elena and her daughter’s faces, and then I felt afraid. I held my breath, my hands started sweating.
But the neighbors came in, and everyone said hi, and that was it. And something strange happened. After the scare, it’s as if Elena was more animated. She felt more rage toward her situation and more enthusiasm to tell me what it was like to live without her husband, just because they were unlucky enough for another car to run into them.
[Elena]: For me it’s… it is… it is very hard. Because, well, we’re alone… alone with the kids. I mean, I don’t know. Because sometimes they give you tickets if you don’t have a license and you pay them and go, but… but I think it wasn’t a reason to lock him up.
[Gilda]: When we spoke in May, Efraín had an “immigration hold.” It’s the immigration status given to undocumented immigrants who are in jail, before transferring them to an ICE detention center. Everything seemed to indicate that he would be deported to Mexico, where he hasn’t lived for more than 15 years.
But a few weeks after my visit, he was released. The family managed to raise a bond of 12.000 dollars for him to be let out temporarily.
I’ve stayed in contact with Elena, and she’s told me over text message that although they are happy that Efraín has returned home, the situation is still uncertain.
And I think that is what I take away from all of this. Uncertainty. How your life can fall apart in an instant. When you live with this fear, everyday things like someone knocking on the door, or driving to a soccer match or the supermarket, become terrifying, and rightfully so.
You’ve already seen people in community detained after a simple highway accident, or for having a flat tire. Bad luck can become a catastrophe for you, for your family.
[Daniel]: In January 2019, Efrain had an appointment before an immigration judge to have his case decided, but it was postponed due to the US government shutdown. Elena doesn’t when the new date will be.
Gilda Di Carli is a journalist. She lives in New York.
This episode was produced by Silvia Viñas and edited by me. The mixing and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano. Andrea López Cruzado did the fact-checking.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Lisette Arévalo, Gabriela BRenes, Jorge Caraballo, Victoria Estrada, Miranda Mazariegos, Diana Morales, Patrick Moseley, Ana Prieto, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Camila Segura, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, and Luis Fernando Vargas. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
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Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón Thanks for listening.