Immigrants call for more direct, vocal support in York City

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
FILE - In this Jan. 10, 2018, file photo U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents gather before serving a employment audit notice at a 7-Eleven convenience store in Los Angeles. Immigration officials have sharply increased audits of companies to verify that their employees are authorized to work in the country, signaling the Trump administration's crackdown on illegal immigration is reaching deeper into the workplace to create a "culture of compliance" among employers who rely on immigrant labor. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

York City's declared status as a "welcoming city" may not be enough to ease the fears of local immigrants as ICE raids hit close to home. 

Eleven immigrants were arrested Friday, May 11, in Gettysburg during a series of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids on local restaurants. York County immigrants took notice — and they're concerned.

"The raid in Gettysburg hit close to home," said Elizabeth Alex, regional director for CASA, an organization with offices in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia that advocates for Latino communities.

"People are afraid," she said. "Most people that we know are aware of someone who has had a family member or friend detained in the last couple years."

York City officials have taken strides over the years to strengthen community ties with immigrants, such as declaring the city a "welcoming city" last year, four days into President Donald Trump's administration. 

FILE -- Latino students protest Donald Trump on the steps at Sproul Plaza at the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, Oct. 9, 2016. Trump’s campaign plan of deporting 2 million to 3 million immigrant criminals raised questions on how he would target for that removal and achieve removals at that scale. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

The move was mostly symbolic and meant to "increase the trust between our immigrant community and our police department,” former York City Mayor Kim Bracey said at the time.

However, York City isn't a "sanctuary city," a label applied to cities with policies to shelter illegal immigrants by preventing local law enforcement from informing federal immigration authorities about the immigration status of individuals.

Most recently, York YMCA became one in three in the country to open an immigrant welcoming center. 

More:York YMCA one of three in U.S. to open immigrant welcome center this year

York City Councilman Henry Nixon gives the first responders memorial tribute during the 2016 Court of Valor & Safekeepers Shrine Ceremony with York's Observance of the 15th Anniversary of 9/11 at Prospect Hill Cemetery in North York, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich did not respond to requests for comment, but city council President Henry Nixon said steps like these are all that can be done.

"I can certainly appreciate the fear that immigrants have, given the climate and attitude of our federal government," Nixon said. "I don't know what else I can say or do to impress on immigrants that personally I welcome them and as a city we welcome them."

For Alex, however, these steps are just the beginning of a lengthy process.

"Many folks are here in the York area because they had nowhere else to go," she said. "They are fleeing from horrific circumstances in their countries, and now that they're here, they still struggle with feeling welcome. We need more direct and vocal support for those in fear."

This fear partially stems from news of ICE raids, which have become more common under the Trump administration, she said.

Since the 2016 elections, ICE arrests have skyrocketed.  And where do these immigrants go? In Pennsylvania, many are housed here in York County.

Elizabeth Alex, regional director of CASA

The York County Prison Immigration Facility is the primary facility for ICE detainees in the state. The number of immigrants housed in the facility is hovering around 730 as of this week, said York County spokesman Mark Walters.

This is a slight decrease from the 767 ICE detainees in March. Until then, there was a small, steady uptick since March 2014, when 608 were housed.

More:Hanover immigrant's run-in with ICE highlights lack of accountability

More:Mayor: York City welcomes immigrants

Local immigrants can't ignore the numbers.

"Knowing that ICE is increasing their tactics and detaining more people is scary," Alex said. "They're scared and don’t have a lot of good options."

One effect of the increasing number of raids is a hesitancy among immigrants to contact local police, even if they are in grave danger, advocates say.

This, however, is an area that local police are working on.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich and Interim Police Chief Troy Bankert hold a press conference on recent shootings, Wednesday, April 25, 2018. John A. Pavoncello photo

Last month, interim York City Police Chief Troy Bankert visited CASA's York City office to introduce himself and address stigmas surrounding police-immigrant relations to a crowd of about 15. 

The primary stigma that Bankert addressed was the falsehood that even if an immigrant is a victim of a crime, authorities will discover their immigration status and possibly report them to ICE to be detained.

More:Mi CASA es su CASA: Latino organization opens in new York City home

"There's several issues that I addressed with them, like the false belief that we are going to antagonize them for their legal status and get them deported,"  Bankert said.

"If they're an immigrant, legal or illegal, they can easily become victimized, because they don't want to call the police," he said. "I wanted to make sure that they know that we don't care where they're from if they call the police; we are just looking for justice for victims."

Although this is a long-standing York City Police policy, there has been a lack of communication between local officials and immigrants, he said, adding that that needs to change.

"I do think there's been a lack of communication with immigrants," Bankert said. "It doesn't seem like a visit like mine has been done before, but the communication is vital. I can't solve everyone's problems. I need them to help me, so I can do the same in turn."

Josefina Carrasco, a Mexican immigrant and 14-year resident of York City present at the meeting, found some comfort in conversations with the police chief. But it was limited.

"I was still scared because there are more than just York City police out there," she said. "We see in the news that there are still Pennsylvania police out there that work with ICE and work to deport immigrants."

Still, the visit was a step in the right direction, Carrasco said.

"It did help a little bit," she said. "But I'd like to see the police try to be closer to the immigrant community, like holding events and activities to make us feel welcome."

However, the fear in local immigrants stems from more than just police. There are also politicians — some local.

While York County's own state Sen. Scott Wagner hasn't made immigration a major part of his gubernatorial campaign, his embrace of Trump has advocates worried. Last year, local immigrants protested the Spring Garden Township Republican's stances on immigration at his North George Street office.

More:EDITORIAL: The immigrant dream

"We see Trump talk badly about immigrants all the time,"  Carrasco said. "But we also have people like Scott Wagner running for governor who share the same views. It's scary, and they don't seem to know that we contribute to the community and economy too."

Politicians like Trump and Wagner have "awoken racist people," she added. This has led to more people in the streets discriminating against immigrants, specifically those with Latino roots.

Wagner, however, doesn't think immigrants' fear of his politics is well justified, said Andrew Romeo, Wagner's spokesman.

"Wagner believes we need to enforce our immigration laws, which is why he has supported legislation to ban sanctuary cities in the commonwealth," he said. "He also understands legal immigration is essential to Pennsylvania's agricultural community and wants to make sure all legal immigrants are treated with respect. If the members of CASA take the time to look at Scott's prior comments on the issue, maybe they would be less concerned."  

Still, Carrasco said all she can do is ask local officials to combat any form of anti-immigrant rhetoric, legal or illegal, seen in politicians at the national and state level.

"City officials need to be more open and speak to not only the immigrant community more, but also the news media," she said. "That would help create harmony. When we have ICE deporting good people, we need our officials to be bold and clear about how the immigrant community is good for York."