Tatiana Sanchez| San Jose Mercury News|Link to Article
Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group
Alice and Jamie Lynch keep the small canvas bag near their front door, ready for when the couple suddenly dashes out of their quiet San Jose home. The bag, small and inconspicuous, carries a phone charger, a flashlight and a notebook — items the pair might need if they were to witness raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In the past year, the Lynches — churchgoing retirees who live on the edges of Willow Glen — have become civilian watch dogs, reporting to neighborhoods across Santa Clara County where ICE activity is reported and acting as legal observers for the undocumented immigrants targeted in these operations. The couple is part of an extensive, rapidly growing community in the Bay Area and across the country made up of average citizens who have banded together in a mass mobilization after President Trump’s election to send a message to ICE: We’re watching you.
The Lynches, who joined the network last year soon after the president was inaugurated, said they were spurred to action because they know people who are undocumented and fearful of getting deported.
“It really was upsetting to see the change in the atmosphere and the threats of more ICE activity,” said Alice Lynch, 66, of the opportunity to become a rapid responder. “As an older white woman, I think I’m the least likely to have any negative consequences of showing up.”
Less than two years after its inception, the Rapid Response Network of Santa Clara County has amassed a remarkable 700 volunteers — from longtime organizers and faith leaders to grandparents, stockbrokers and stock boys, saleswomen and software engineers — ready to respond to reports of ICE sightings with notebooks and recording devices in hand. Many of the Rapid Responders, like the Lynches, are white U.S. citizens — not directly impacted by the immigration debate — but desperate to find some way to do more than stand by.
Jamie Lynch, 63, said it was important to the couple to do something other than voting and calling state representatives who largely agreed with their viewpoints.
“I think of it as leveraging our white privilege,” he said. “An older white person is not going to be intimidating to the ICE agents who are doing their job.”
Their work has taken on more urgency this year, amid an uptick in workplace compliance checks and massive ICE raids reportedly on the horizon. Just last week, ICE agents descended on 77 businesses in the San Jose, San Francisco and Sacramento regions to verify if their employees were legal U.S. workers.
In the East Bay, several social justice organizations formed the Alameda County Immigration Legal and Education Partnership, which provides legal protection and resources and a rapid response hotline to undocumented immigrants potentially facing deportation. In San Francisco, the Northern California Rapid Response & Immigrant Defense Network also responds to reports of ICE activity. Dozens of other counties also have their own networks and hotlines. Contra Costa is expected to launch a rapid response hotline in March.
For its part, ICE is unfazed by the citizen oversight, insisting they are following the letter of the law to enforce it.
“In performing their sworn duties, ICE officers conduct themselves in accordance with the authorities conveyed to them under federal law and the Constitution,” ICE spokesman James Schwab said in a statement.
Immigration officials have warned California — the country’s first “sanctuary state” — of added ICE sweeps in the months to come, a reaction to what many say are the state’s lax immigration laws.
“They’re about to see a lot more special agents, a lot more deportation officers in the state of California,” ICE Director Thomas Homan told Fox News last month.
The idea for the Rapid Response Network — a collaborative project by People Acting in Community Together or PACT, Pangea Legal Services, Sacred Heart Community Services, SIREN and several others — sprouted from a community forum in 2016, when residents at risk of deportation said they desperately needed immediate protection and guidance during encounters with ICE.
“When it really started to heat up was during the election,” said the Rev. Jon Pedigo, who helped develop the network early on. Immigration hardliner Donald Trump promised to significantly step up enforcement, an aspect of his campaign that won over right-leaning supporters who felt the enforcement was long overdue.
Pedigo, a PACT clergy leader and board member and director for advocacy and community engagement for Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, said the network is proof of what can happen when people band together.
“It ties everyone together,” he said. “A lot of our volunteers are from safe communities. They are well-to-do, they are economically and educationally advantaged. It ties those people to the people that are hurt and disadvantaged.”
Whenever ICE activity is reported to the network’s hotline, nearby volunteers receive text alerts from dispatchers with a location and basic details. Those available to head to the scene reply, “OMW” or “on my way,” so that dispatchers can gauge how many volunteers are headed to the scene. As many as 30 volunteers have responded to a single alert, according to leaders. While they don’t interfere with enforcement operations or interact with ICE agents, the volunteers act as an extra set of eyes during enforcement operations to ensure the immigrants’ civil rights aren’t violated. The notes and video obtained from each scene are archived and analyzed to see if there are patterns in the type of enforcement ICE is carrying out locally, said Mariela Garcia, a community leader with Sacred Heart Community Services.
About six volunteers respond to each incident, each with a different role to fill, from ICE liaison to note taker. Though the volunteers said the interaction can be scary and that ICE agents aren’t exactly fond of seeing strangers point cameras at them, they made it clear that they don’t interfere at all with the agents’ work and haven’t had any trouble so far.
ICE spokesman Schwab said the group is at liberty to be present, as long as there’s no physical interaction with the agents.
“Individuals who intervene in or seek to impede ICE officers while they are carrying out their mission recklessly endanger not only the enforcement personnel, but also the individuals targeted for arrest and potentially innocent bystanders,” he said in a statement. “Those who engage in such actions run the risk of harming the very people they purport to support.”
Stephanie Jayne, of San Jose, has responded to several alerts since becoming a Rapid Responder last spring. Though she doesn’t live in fear, she recognizes there are others in her community who do.
“I grab my bag and go, to stand with this individual, a neighbor, a friend, a person who I might not know, but who wants the same things for their family as I want for my own,” she said. “In this way, we are connected on a level that goes way beyond politics.”