The arrests last week of two people by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers were isolated events, officials say, but they triggered rumors and fear around the Island among immigrants unsettled by President Trump’s pledge to crack down on illegal immigration.
An ICE spokesman confirmed this week that Marcelo Fernandes Frias was arrested by ICE officers on March 9. Mr. Frias has a prior drunken driving conviction and was previously removed from the United States in 2005, the spokesman said. He is currently in ICE custody in Bristol County and will remain there pending reinstatement of the prior removal order, the spokesman said.
According to a police report, Oak Bluffs police accompanied ICE agents at their request when they served the warrant to Mr. Frias, who was taken into custody after getting into a passenger seat of a vehicle on Debettencourt Circle.
Another person was arrested in Vineyard Haven, according to Island police. Tisbury police could not be reached for comment and ICE could not confirm an arrest without a name.
Immigration attorney Rachel Self, who practices on the Island and elsewhere in Massachusetts, said she received a flurry of phone calls last week from people concerned that undercover agents were conducting a widespread sweep on the Island. Discussion of similar rumors also took place on an Island Facebook group.
“In no way was it a raid; in no way was it a random sweep,” Ms. Self said.
Edgartown Police Chief David Rossi, whose department was not involved in any actions, agreed that word of the arrests “caused a lot of anxiety,” noting that it is not unusual for immigration officials to serve warrants on the Island, and police will assist if asked.
“I saw a lot of stuff on social media, which is unfortunate because people get hyped up over something they shouldn’t,” he said.
Ms. Self said that if those who have been ordered deported in the past are found to be in the country, they do not have the right to go before a judge again. “Once they come back after an order of removal that’s a criminal act,” she said, adding that under the law it is perfectly normal for federal immigration officers to visit the Island to enforce the law.
But she said she believed it had been several years since ICE had been on the Island to conduct similar activity.
“It hasn’t been an enforcement priority down here for them at all,” she said.
Ms. Self has been practicing law for 13 years, and said her clients on the Island are from around the world, including Estonia, Bulgaria, Jamaica and Brazil. She said she’s noticed a changed landscape for her immigration clients, which could have contributed to the fear that resulted from last week’s arrests.
“This sweet little hamlet of an Island, and the fear that was installed in this Island last Thursday blew my mind,” she said. “Everybody was just terrified.”
She said she has been focusing on educating her clients and others about their rights. Being in the country without legal status is not inherently a crime, Ms. Self said, and she advises those with immigration concerns of their constitutional rights not to answer questions from an immigration officer.
“The only time you’re required to cooperate is if they have a warrant signed by a judge with their name on it,” Ms. Self said.
Her other advice includes working only with authorized immigration lawyers, seeking second and third opinions from lawyers, learning one’s rights, putting money aside, and having a plan in place for power of attorney and a designated caregiver for young children. She said non-profit organizations are available to help, including the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project (PAIR), the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA), and the ACLU.
The community group We Stand Together has been at the forefront of the issue, holding public forums and regular meetings. They have also submitted petitions for town meeting warrants asking the towns to vote to “refrain from using town funds and/or resources to enforce federal immigration laws, in keeping with current practices, unless presented with a criminal warrant or other evidence of probably cause as required by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.” The wording may vary in some towns.
Ms. Self said that part of the problem is that some people have been reluctant to come forward and ask questions or request forms because of fears the police will be there. But at a January community forum about immigration hosted by the Martha's Vineyard Social Justice Leadership foundation, Oak Bluffs police chief Erik Blake said his police officers do not ask people about immigration status. “We enforce state and local laws. We do not enforce federal laws,” he said.
Edgartown’s Chief Rossi said his department does not ask people about immigration status either. “They get treated like any other citizen, so that’s important for people to know,” he said. “We don’t initiate anything, don’t do anything proactive with it.”
Chief Rossi recently met with a couple of students at the Edgartown school who were nervous about immigration issues, including their parents’ status.
“They shouldn’t be afraid of us, any of the local police,” he said. “We’re not looking to round up people, not going to people’s homes, things like that. They still have their fourth amendment rights and things like that. I just want to make that clear.”