Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

February 9-15, 2006

cover story

The Big Miedo

How rumors of an immigration sweep crippled city restaurants and scared local Mexicans into hiding.

On Monday night, Andres* sat huddled in the passenger seat of a sedan while his gringo neighbor ran into Wal-Mart to buy a stockpile of diapers. If the rumors were true, and he was going to have to hole up in his house with his brother's twin daughters, that was the one thing he did not want to be without.

(*The names of Andres and Victor have been changed at their request.)

Phantom Menace: Despite rumors of a Washington Avenue raid, no one has able to give the name of a single person arrested.
Phantom Menace: Despite rumors of a Washington Avenue raid, no one has able to give the name of a single person arrested.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan

The next morning, he braved the trip to the South Street restaurant where he works in the kitchen, cooking bar food beneath safety guidelines printed in both English and Spanish. At about 10 a.m., the news came: La Migra, the immigration officers, had picked up two Mexican women from a restaurant at 22nd and Locust streets. Andres peeked his head out the kitchen door, up South Street. That's when he saw the white vans. He didn't stick around to see any more.

Over the next two days, Andres, a 29-year-old undocumented worker from Puebla, Mexico, remained locked in his South Philadelphia home with his brother, sister-in-law and their children. They fielded calls from friends and relatives who told stories of people in their immigrant community being picked up off the street, from their places of work, or even in front of their houses. Some thought the raids were a preemptive blow against el paro—"the stoppage"—a strike that Philly's immigrant workers have been planning for Valentine's Day, as evidence of their value to the city's economy. And while a few of the single young men in the community just put their money in their pockets and went to work—they liked it better in Mexico anyway—Andres knew he could not afford to be sent home. His wife and three children in Mexico depend on the money he makes here. So he didn't even leave the house when he ran out of milk. He stayed locked inside, like a fugitive—which, of course, he is.

Andres is medium height and thickly built, with a circular, friendly face that lends him the appearance of a Mexican Buddha. His hands, too, are round and fleshy, but form a surprisingly firm grip on the things he grabs hold of. For the past six months, he has inhabited an unfriendly country, where no one speaks his language—the sort of thing that men who scare easily don't do. And yet, like many of the Mexican immigrants who make their home in South Philadelphia, Andres was petrified last week. This in spite of the fact that he didn't know anyone who'd gone missing, nor seen those white vans actually apprehend anyone. Why did he need to see it? Everyone else had.

In today's strange America, where an entire nation lives and works invisibly, cloaked by language and the illegality of its existence, Ricardo Diaz is a man with a foot in two worlds. As a child, he served border patrol agents lunch at his family's restaurant in New Mexico, but as a young man studied linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Now he is the South Philadelphia consultant for Congreso, a Latino social service agency. He runs a soccer league, and also helps members of South Philly's Mexican community—which the Mexican consulate estimates numbers more than 10,000— to navigate problems with schools, employers and other difficulties immigrants might face. When people started hearing stories about a crackdown by La Migra, many turned to Ricardo for confirmation.

The first call came at 8:28 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 30. A woman had heard that there were going to be raids, and wanted to know if Ricardo knew anything about it. He did not, but promised he would look into it.

Soon, friends and strangers alike were calling to report raids at specific locations. A typical call went something like this:

You're Ricardo?


I want to know if something is happening. I heard that they were picking up people at Fourth and Washington. My cousin told me that it was happening.

Except it wasn't just Fourth and Washington streets—it was also Ninth and Washington, Reading Terminal Market, South Street, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and dozens of other places where significant numbers of immigrants work. The stories ranged from single, targeted arrests, to the capture of 60 people in the Italian Market, to white vans that rolled around the city, indiscriminately picking up Latinos.

Throughout Monday night and into Tuesday, Ricardo tried to verify each report by going to the alleged location and asking around. Along with other social workers and reporters from Al Dia, Philly's Spanish-language newspaper, he traversed the city, searching for the raids. But he always seemed one step behind the story.

"We heard that, too," people at each location would say, "but it didn't happen here, it happened up the street."

"Site one had heard site three, site three had heard one, and site two had heard one and three," Ricardo says.

It seemed strange. But people kept calling, saying that raids were being conducted, and immigrants were missing. Ricardo didn't want to take anything for granted. Clearly, something was going on.

Establishments across the city were indeed closed on Tuesday. One pizza store on Market Street put up a sign citing an electrical problem; a Center City Mexican restaurant claimed mechanical failure. But what was really going on was that the Mexicans hadn't come to work. El paro was happening by accident.

The community seemed to have reached a consensus: Better safe than sorry. A 16-year-old girl named Florencia, who works behind the counter at her father's South Philly bodega, says her parents began Tuesday by consulting over the phone with friends and neighbors, wondering if it was safe to go out. When a friend reported that his daughter had seen a raid, her parents decided to close up shop. Later in the day, she says, someone called their house to see if her family was OK—there was a rumor going around that they'd been apprehended.

"You should have seen how people were scared," Florencia says. Parents wondered who would pick their children up from school if they were scooped off the street. "They kept saying, 'My kids were born here, and I'm an immigrant.'"

Those who badly needed the money packed bags or made contingency plans to meet family members in Mexico before heading out to work. But many were just sent home by their employers. A worker named Victor* says he arrived at his Center City restaurant to find that none of the dishwashers had come in. His manager pulled him aside and said, "If you want to go, you should go." Employing illegal aliens can bring thousands of dollars in fines, and business owners weren't willing to take the risk.

The net effect, in South Philadelphia, was a profound absence. Ask people around the Italian Market what it looked like on Tuesday and they will say something like "a desert," or "a ghost town." And though few restaurant owners will admit to being among those who closed, the Inquirer cited sources in the industry saying restaurants were adversely affected.

For many, all of this confirmed the stories of raids. Along the Ninth Street corridor, people present the following tale as fact: At 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday the 31st, a white van pulled up to an Italian Market fish store and apprehended all the Mexican employees—that's why they were closed.

But no one saw the white van.

Ricardo and the other community leaders were searching for something more concrete. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—La Migra—responded somewhat coyly to questions about raids, saying simply that they were just conducting their normal activities.

"Are raids part of your normal activities?" Ricardo remembers thinking. "Give us a straight answer."

But it seemed unlikely, if ICE was conducting raids, that they would want their targets to know about it.

More helpful was the response from the Mexican consulate. Spokeswoman Rocio Vasquez told Ricardo (and continues to maintain) that the official word from the U.S. government was that nothing strange was happening. The police districts in South Philadelphia were likewise unaware of any ICE action.

On Tuesday afternoon, there was a big community meeting in the Career Link Center at Ninth and Washington streets, with local business owners, community leaders and a representative from the Mexican consulate. As they pooled and reviewed their information, two things became clear: They had yet to identify anyone who had actually witnessed someone being apprehended—everyone had heard it from his brother-in-law, or his cousin, or his neighbor. And they had yet to find anyone who personally knew someone who'd gone missing.

By 7:30 p.m., Ricardo was certain that he was chasing a ghost. He had fielded approximately 200 calls in 23 hours, and hadn't known what to tell people. But now, he had his golden line:

"Give me the name of someone who was arrested and tell me who told you," he said to callers. "No one has been able to answer that question."

Rumors spread under conditions of high anxiety. Anxious people can easily turn hysterical, says Jack Levin, author of Rumor and Gossip: the Social Psychology of Hearsay, and hysterical people are not sticklers for accuracy.

Last week, several factors converged to make the South Philadelphia Mexican community a particularly flammable place for a rumor. First, there was the specter of el paro. For undocumented workers, the idea of asserting themselves—of calling attention in any way, after putting so much effort into anonymity—was frightening. There's a system, they believe: They live here, work for cheap and don't make trouble. In exchange, the powers that be don't try too hard to catch them. Many thought that the imagined raids were a warning not to screw up the balance. Ricardo believes the raids didn't happen, but suspects that the rumors were planted. He finds it suspicious that in South Philly, a multinational epicenter, the rumors were contained within the Mexican community.

"This is probably not a mistake," he says. "It seems to us that somebody wants to strike fear."

He does not know how last week's events will affect participation in el paro.

In addition to the stoppage, the nation's changing political climate contributed to high anxiety. Although on Tuesday night, President Bush used his State of the Union address to call for a guest worker program that would represent a softening of current laws, Bush is on the defensive against his own party on the issue of immigration. The president's position falls, depending on your level of cynicism, into either the "compassionate-conservatism" category, or the "pro-Wal-Mart," cheap-labor category. This is a very different stance than that of, say, the Minutemen, who voluntarily patrol the U.S.-Mexican border, or of Wisconsin's Rep. James Sensenbrenner, who introduced a bill that would make it an aggravated felony to be or to assist an illegal alien.

It is already virtually impossible for an illegal alien to gain citizenship, observes Jane Goldblum, an immigration attorney in Jenkintown. There is a five-year waiting period, after initial application, for most workers from Mexico to obtain a visa, and the U.S. tacks on a 10-year penalty for someone having been an illegal in the first place. Sensenbrenner's bill would eliminate even this unlikely path, because the U.S. does not allow felons to become citizens. It would also make the lives of illegals immeasurably harder, by criminalizing the behavior of people like Ricardo Diaz—which is, of course, Sensenbrenner's objective. The bill has already passed the House and is moving into the Senate.

Between the upcoming strike, the changing political climate and the tension that comes from living in a perpetual state of law-breakage, South Philly's Mexican community was on edge last week. But it's not just anxiety that fuels rumors. Rumors catch on in the absence of official news, says Prof. Levin. For communities that lack reliable information, word-of-mouth often is news, and in many cases, contains a germ of truth.

Photo By: Michael T. Regan

It's not clear what the germ would be in this case. Could it have been the recent arrest, in Vineland, N.J., of several illegal immigrants with prior orders to leave the country, which precipitated a similar panic in Cumberland County two weeks ago? Could there have been a catalytic event in Philly, perhaps the arrest of someone with a criminal record—which is why illegal aliens usually get picked up? City Paper did find one South Philadelphia resident who says that his friend, a young man with a record, was captured by immigration on Tuesday and hasn't been seen since. Could someone have witnessed something like that, and started a domino effect?

In a way, it doesn't really matter how the rumors began—this story tracks back well before Monday night. It goes to the very state of the immigrant worker, which is so precarious, so fraught with fear and so bereft of good information that a rumor can cause two days of paralysis. Nor was it just undocumented workers who were paralyzed. Americans like to imagine a line between documented and undocumented—between legal and illegal, good and bad—but in the Mexican community, it doesn't exist. Within one family, says Ricardo, you can have numerous, interdependent legals and illegals. The line is as meaningless as the border.

Andres still believes the raids were real. Standing outside the kitchen where he works at the end of a long day, he shrugs off suggestions to the contrary. Everyone in his community says the raids happened, so why should he believe otherwise? Who else has earned his trust? The raids happened, he says with conviction—his sister-in-law knows two women who are missing. He is less certain when asked how this makes him feel.

"No mal," he says. He sorts his thoughts for a minute before settling on the right word. "Triste." Sad.

It is Thursday, Feb. 2. The panic has resided, and most of the South Philly Mexican community has gone back to work. Ricardo Diaz is just about to sit down to a lunch of chile rellenos and a virgin sangria at La Lupe, on Ninth Street, when La Migra walks in.

There are eight of them, all Caucasian and all big—or at least, they seem to form something large as their blue uniforms flood through the narrow doorway. Their chests bear ethnic European surnames; the badges on their sleeves read: U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"A sighting!" Ricardo marvels quietly, wondering for a distorted moment if he had it all wrong, and has sent an entire community marching to its doom.

But the men just push two tables together, order lunch and begin to discuss training regulations. The waitstaff doesn't seem discomfited in the least.

For Ricardo, this brings back memories of the border agents of his youth. Those men were on familiar terms with the people they chased; the patrol was just a job, a paycheck. So it is today. Clearly, ICE could find illegal immigrants in Philadelphia—last week, undocumented workers were missing from all the obvious places. But it's one thing to find illegals, and quite another to do something about them. You'd have to infringe on civil liberties by asking for documentation; you'd have to find a place to detain them all while processing their deportations; above all, you'd have to figure out how the hell the city would run without them. Better to stick to the formula, and just keep them on their toes.

A few minutes into the meal, Ricardo's phone rings: someone asking if it's true that there's a raid at La Lupe. Word has spread that there are agents inside. Ricardo assures the caller that there's no raid. He's right here, eating, and so are they. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just regular activities.

The officers finish their lunch and rise to leave. Ricardo eyes them cautiously as they settle their bill and bid farewell to their hostess.

"Outstanding food, thank you very much," says one.

"Mu-ey delicioso, senorita," says another. Then they exit the restaurant, climb into a white car and a white jeep, and head back to work.

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