December 5, 2023

US City of Fear

This story is a collaboration with The Marshall Project. From New York Mag

20,000 of New York’s immigrants have been identified for deportation since Trump took office. The rest worry they’ll be next.

An estimated half a million New Yorkers are undocumented. Whether they’ve lived here for two months or 20 years, they came to this city of immigrants — a place where more than a third of the population was born in another country — looking for the same things that have brought newcomers here for centuries: work and school opportunities, religious freedom, family, and a haven from violence, persecution, political upheaval, and natural disaster.

In this “sanctuary city,” the local government promises to defend New Yorkers regardless of status, restricting law-enforcement cooperation with federal immigration agents (although not prohibiting it entirely, to the chagrin of many immigrant advocates). But in recent months, amid headlines about terrified toddlers in “baby jails” and a president who refers to migrants as an “infestation,”it’s become increasingly clear that even New York City doesn’t feel safe for the undocumented.

Now these are everyday scenes in the city: A Ecuadoran man gets arrested while delivering pizza in Brooklyn. A Chinese father of two is detained during an interview to become a legal permanent resident. Across the boroughs, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have appeared in courthouses, workplaces, neighborhood streets, even a church, according to one advocacy group, sowing panic.

In the eight months following Donald Trump’s inauguration, ICE arrests in the region jumped by 67 percent compared to the same period in the previous year, and arrests of immigrants with no criminal convictions increased 225 percent. During that time, ICE arrested 2,031 people in its New York “area of responsibility,” which includes the five boroughs and surrounding counties. These aren’t unprecedented numbers: ICE arrested almost four times as many people in 2010 in New York as it did last year, and it picks up far fewer people here than in other parts of the country.

Thanks to free legal assistance, in which Mayor de Blasio has invested $30 million, New York–area immigrants are also more likely than their counterparts elsewhere in the United States to be represented in court. (Eighty percent in Queens versus, say, 39 percent in South Carolina.) Partly as a result, they’re also less likely to get deported, according to data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Among the five U.S. counties with the most immigration cases, Queens had the highest proportion of immigrants who were granted deportation relief and the lowest proportion ordered removed from the country.

Despite all of that, Trump’s immigration crackdown has instilled a new level of fear throughout the city. Before he took office, many undocumented immigrants who were considered low priority for deportation — because they didn’t have criminal records, for example —were allowed to stay as long as they regularly reported to immigration authorities. But Trump has expanded the number of people considered a priority for deportation. Now people whose only offense is staying in the country illegally are being flagged for removal.

Those who are arrested are often subjected to inhumane conditions in overcrowded detention facilities while they await deportation proceedings, which can take months or even years. Although many manage to stave off deportation with the help of a lawyer, scrambling to pay the thousands of dollars in legal fees, others are not so lucky. Flown to countries where they may not have lived in decades, the deported often arrive with no money, no phone, no place to stay. Back in New York, their absences, often dizzyingly sudden, leave children, spouses, friends, churches, and entire communities reeling — and wondering who could disappear next.

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that many immigrant New Yorkers who for years have tried to do the right thing — like paying taxes and checking in with ICE — are retreating into the shadows. “This Trump administration came in, even the permanent residents, even the people who have their status, they have this fear,” says Youngmin Lo, 35, an undocumented South Korean pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Maspeth, Queens. “And the people who are undocumented, I think they realize it’s time to hide.”

To understand what life is like for undocumented New Yorkers and their loved ones, the Marshall Project and New York contacted more than 100 people around the city — immigrants, lawyers, and advocates. There was the 23-year-old undocumented Dominican woman from the Bronx who was detained on her honeymoon in Niagara Falls. The Manhattan teenager too shaken to tell her best friends that her father had been deported to Gambia. The bright middle-school student in Harlem who suddenly disappeared; an aunt told the school that her family had fled to Canada. “Palpable fear has just become part of their lives at this point,” says Constance Bond, principal of St. hope Leadership Academy Charter School in Harlem, about her students from immigrant families — as it has for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. —Geraldine Sealey

IMAGE: An ICE raid in Bushwick. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images


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