Barry Saunders

Durham group tries to put Latinos at ease – Saunders

That was nothing but terror etched on the kid’s face when he looked up and his mom – who’d been sitting beside him – was gone.

The boy, about 6 or 7, was sitting directly in front of me. He had been so engrossed in his shoelaces or something that he didn’t notice when she got up and wandered to the back of the auditorium to take a phone call. A woman sitting three seats down saw the same thing in him that I saw – panic – and bade him come sit beside her. He obediently snuggled up next to her until his madre returned two minutes later.

Near the end of the meeting Tuesday night at the Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham, I thought back to that little boy. Dang it. I hope he’s too young to know what’s going on.

What was going on was a public hearing where more than 300 Hispanic residents filled the auditorium to hear reassurances from elected officials that they wouldn’t be ripped from the only life some of them knew and shipped out of the United States for being in the country illegally.. They also heard which options are available to them if they are apprehended.

If that child seated in front of me suffered separation anxiety simply because his mother wandered a few feet away, imagine what he’d feel like if she were shipped back to Mexico – her home country – because she was stopped for running a stop sign.

Reading in Spanish his prepared remarks to the rapt audience, Durham City Councilman Steve Schewel sought to assuage their fears. Durham, he said, is committed to ensuring “the safety and well-being of all residents regardless of their immigration status.”

Because all of the speakers except County Commissioner Heidi Carter spoke in Spanish – she had a translator – I spent the entire two-and-a-half hour meeting regretting that I’d not paid more attention in Mr. Campbell’s 9th grade Spanish class at Rockingham Junior High School. When Councilman Schewel said “No ICE in Durham,” though, I knew he wasn’t referring to the absence of frozen water to put in your drink. So did the residents gathered in the auditorium.

Like that kind of ice, the fear melted momentarily from many faces as they cheered and applauded. As Schewel told me when we spoke later, “We want to make sure that Durham police are not doing the enforcement work of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. As much as we’d like to in Durham, we can’t protect people from ICE. There are things we can do, though. We can welcome people who are documented or undocumented into our schools, places of employment, all of our public places.

“We can ensure,” he said, “that police are recognizing the ‘Faith I.D.’,” a picture identification card issued by El Centro Hispano that proves who they are after they’ve been vetted.

“Let’s say you get stopped for running a traffic light. Instead of having to go to jail because you don’t have an I.D., you show them the card,” Schewel said. He has one, in solidarity with the Hispanic residents, which he held aloft to cheers.

“Police recognize it,” he said, “and it’s a way to keep people out of big trouble, possibly immigration trouble.”

Yikes! Can you imagine having to worry that any little traffic infraction could have such a profound effect on you, could cost you the life you’ve spent decades building?

Blanca can. The illegal immigrant from Mexico has lived in North Carolina for 20 years, she said, but she has only felt “terrified” since last November’s election and since ICE has seemingly ratcheted up deportations, as the new president promised it would. Asked if that fear has caused her to change her daily routine, she said, “Yes. I have to be looking all around when I’m driving.”

Blanca cleans houses for a living. On the advice of her attorney, who was standing at her shoulder, she would permit me to use only her first name and wouldn’t allow me to take her picture. She nonetheless spoke candidly about her fear for her four children – two of whom are grown – and herself. “I get scared when the police get behind me in the car, because maybe they’ll be checking my plate and see that’s it’s a Hispanic car,” she said.

Who among us doesn’t know the angst that makes us drive with one eye on the road and the other on the rear-view mirror because your license plate expired yesterday and the line at the DMV was so long that you said to heck with it, I’ll catch ’em tomorrow? When most of us turn onto a street we had no intention of turning onto because we see a cop car cruising up from behind, we know that, even if caught, we’ll face a small fine or a reprimand. We don’t have to fear having our lives upended.

No one should have that fear.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9

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