Residents of Oakland's heavily Latino Fruitvale neighborhood are staying home from work, avoiding trips to the grocery store, and making alternative arrangements to pick up their children from school — or, in some cases, not sending them at all.
The community's undocumented immigrants — from day laborers to high school students to homemakers — say they've been deeply frightened by stepped-up traffic enforcement along International Boulevard in recent weeks. Fear now permeates the daily lives of these families to such an extent that any perceived threat — whether well-founded or not — can cause ripples of panic. "It's always a typical fear," said sixteen-year-old Jasmine Herrera. "But now it's just getting worse."
The community's undocumented residents and their advocates say officers have been stopping drivers, asking for licenses, and confiscating the cars of those who can't produce them. Those cars are often as good as lost, with impound fees and tickets quickly adding up to thousands of dollars.
Such incidents have many in the community believing that city police are targeting Latinos; some residents are even speculating that officers are collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, in violation of Oakland's "city of refuge" ordinance. That ordinance prohibits the city from cooperating with the federal government in the deportation of undocumented residents.
"That's one of the reasons these checkpoints are so dangerous, because it conflates police and immigration in people's heads," said Andrea Cristina Mercado, lead organizer for Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a group that works with immigrant women on issues of employment rights and domestic violence. "It really hurts the police reputation in the community."
Jeff Thomason, spokesman for the police department, was adamant that his department honors the sanctuary ordinance and does not contact the federal government to report unlicensed drivers. "We do not call ICE," he said. "We are a sanctuary city. We do not care what city you're from or if you're from Oakland."
Thomason said police are merely increasing enforcement of minor crimes along International Boulevard — this includes anything from loitering to drinking in public to driving without a license plate. The goal, he said, is to keep small infractions in check in order to prevent bigger crimes like robbery and homicide.
Unlicensed drivers do get their cars towed, he said, and with good reason: the city sees 14,000 accidents each year, about a third of which are hit-and-runs. Often, Thomason said, the perpetrators of those hit-and-runs are unlicensed, uninsured drivers. "People aren't supposed to be driving if they don't have licenses," he said.
As fear spreads and rumors fly, immigration advocates are trying to peel apart exactly what is — and is not — happening. Initially, upon learning of the traffic stops, Mercado, of Mujeres Unidas y Activas, sent text messages to a group of people, asking them to come hold signs warning drivers about what was happening.
Darran Hamm, an Alameda chiropractor, was among those who volunteered. He said he saw more than a dozen officers stationed around 44th and International one Friday evening a few weekends ago. He saw police pull over a middle-aged man in construction clothes, he said, as well as a family. Mercado said she saw five cars get towed in the span of two and a half hours. She saw people being ticketed for riding their bicycles on the sidewalk.
A few weeks ago, Mercado and other immigration advocates called a meeting with the mayor's office to voice their concern about the traffic stops. Because people are undocumented, she said, they are legally prohibited from getting California drivers' licenses. But many have no choice except to drive in order to get to work or school, the grocery store, or the doctor's office.
One of the attendees at a recent meeting of Mujeres Unidas y Activas was 31-year-old Erika Muñez. She said she has tried relying solely on public transportation to avoid driving without a license. But on three different occasions, she was threatened by a group of women as she walked home with her small children. She decided she'd rather risk driving.
"My children, I don't want to expose them," she said.
As police stops have increased in her neighborhood, Muñez said she relies on an informal phone tree to avoid problems. Friends and neighbors call one another when they see police pulling over drivers, or when they spot ICE vehicles in the area. When Muñez receives such a call, she drives a different route.
At a weekly lunch for day laborers at the offices of the Street Level Health Project two weeks ago, the organization's executive director, Laura Perez, urged the men in attendance to speak up about the police stops.
"This isn't fair," she told them in Spanish. "If we don't speak ... who is going to speak?"
Most members of the group wore baseball caps and work shoes. They watched her shyly, not saying much. But they applauded enthusiastically when she was done. Some, like Genáro Hernandez, a 52-year-old laborer and Aztec dance instructor, said they feel afraid all the time. They are afraid of losing the cars they depend on for work. They are afraid of the police. They are afraid of deportation. They are most afraid of what will happen to their families if they can no longer send money home to support them. With the police stops, all agree, the fear has gotten worse. (The Express agreed to use Genáro's maternal last name, because of his fears of deportation.)
Genáro said that, these days, he and many others try to avoid driving. He himself hasn't used his car for six months. All that fear has also spawned a new trend among many of his friends — they no longer give their real names to employers or officials, instead offering nicknames.
Genáro pointed to his friend, "Pepe," who stood nearby, frying sausage meat. A prime example, he said. Genáro and "Pepe" and other men they know try their best to encourage one other, though times are harder and scarier for them now than in all the seven years Genáro has worked in this country.
"'We're here now, and who knows about tomorrow?' That's how we take it," he said. "We boost each other up and say: 'Life has to continue.'"