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‘Rapid response’ teams to mobilize at ICE searches in Sonoma


Of the Valley’s population of 38,000, 29 percent are Hispanic. Of the 11,000 Hispanics living here today, an estimated 5,500 are undocumented.

“Frankly, that’s probably an underreported number,” said Marge Thomas, co-chair of the Rapid Response Program, a new initiative launched by local nonprofit La Luz Center.

The Rapid Response Program is an ancillary wing of the Sonoma Valley Action Coalition, an entity whose sole purpose is to address issues affecting immigrants.

“There’s so much pop-up political action these days,” Thomas said at the July meeting of the Springs Community Alliance, explaining the program’s origins. In response to an increase in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and detentions nationally, as well as a perceived anti-immigrant political climate, the Rapid Response Program intends to send a team of trained “legal observers” to every ICE raid staged in the Valley.

“There are 400 immigrants detained in the U.S. every day,” Thomas said. “Ninety-nine percent of them are based on unwarranted searches.”

Rapid Response begins when an immigration enforcement incident is reported from within the community. The first work of the team is to confirm that ICE activity is actually happening, as false alarms are not uncommon.

“When people see ICE – say an ICE man at Lucky’s – people get scared and that’s how rumors start,” said Juan Hernandez, executive director of La Luz.

Once an incident is confirmed, a call is issued to mobilize the Rapid Response observers who, in teams of five, immediately congregate at the identified location. Their purpose is not to engage or interfere with law enforcement in any way, but to stand the legally mandated distance away from involved parties and simply record the event.

“Documentation could be used in court, if they do it the proper way,” said Hernandez.

Modeled on similar programs used in cities all over the country, and organized by way of a computer program written by an undocumented immigrant in New York, the Rapid Response Program seeks to mitigate the potential collateral damage of an ICE raid while protecting an immigrant’s legal rights. “These are our neighbors and friends,” Thomas said.

When the mission concludes and the target is removed, Rapid Response observers can make more overt efforts to assist. “A small crew of community members, in coordination with FISH, makes sure that the family has food for the day, that the kids can get picked up from school, any kind of support,” Hernandez said. “The Sonoma Valley Action Coalition has some lawyers, to make sure that person gets some legal representation, wherever he’s at.”

Most ICE raids happen between 4 and 8 a.m., according to Thomas, and undocumented immigrants should be prepared to resist legally.

United We Dream, a website dedicated to education and protection of the immigrant community, advises the following: first, officers may not enter a dwelling without a signed, legal warrant; second, anything said can be used against an immigrant in a court of law, so silence is the safest and best option; third, paperwork of any kind should not be signed without legal counsel; fourth, reporting and recording the events of the raid is good insurance, and advisable in every case (excepting for raids staged on federally-owned land).

The Rapid Response Program began with 20 participants, but 40 additional people attended a training July 22 at La Luz. The program is close to being operational, though no ICE raids have been reported in the Valley so far. Organizers expect that situation may change, and are pushing the program forward as quickly as possible.

Rapid Response team leader Ellen LaBruce sees parallels between the current immigration debate and historical ones.

“Throughout our history,” LaBruce said, “the U.S. government has made laws that marginalized people who are powerless to defend themselves. We deported thousands of Mexican nationals who had been here legally; we rounded up Japanese-Americans and forced them into internment camps. We have attempted to wipe out Native Americans. Many times, in looking back, the U.S. government has had to apologize for its actions.

“History will again be the judge of whether massive deportation of immigrant families who are here to work and find a better life for their families is a blow against human rights. In the meantime, the Rapid Response Network will be recording what ICE does, to bring their actions out of the shadows.”

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.