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How Immigration Arrests Affect Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

  • Bill Rodgers

Undocumented immigrant Raul, who has been in the United States for 10 years, and his wife walk down a street in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Photo: M. Kornely / VOA)

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of occasional reports from this area.

HARRISBURG, PENNSYLVANIA --- "Yes, there exists this fear — the fear that this can happen [again]," said Raul, a 31-year-old Mexican national and longtime resident of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A fear of reprisal led to his request that VOA keep his surname and workplace confidential.

Speaking in Spanish to VOA in the basement of a Catholic church in downtown Harrisburg, Raul recounted how he was stopped by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents on his way to work in May, along with a van full of other immigrant workers.

"They stopped us for no reason whatsoever," Raul said. "They weren't looking for anybody in particular. They simply asked all of us, 'Are you here legally?'"

In Raul's case, the answer is no.

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One Undocumented Immigrant Talks About Living in Fear
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Free for now after being held briefly in a detention facility, he worries about being arrested again and eventually deported.

"I'm the head of the family, and so if something would happen to me, my children and my wife would be left without any support," he said. "They would suffer a lot. They're very close to me, so it would be a hard blow."

Growing threat

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's state capital, has a sizable Hispanic population — about 18 percent of the city's 49,000 people. Many, like Raul, are from Mexico; others are from Central American nations. They work for landscaping companies, meatpacking plants and other local industries.

Increasingly, those who are undocumented are at risk of arrest and detention, according to local news reports going back to last March. ICE will not release the numbers of arrests for Pennsylvania or the Harrisburg area. However, "administrative arrests" — an ICE category for those whose offenses are immigration-related, as opposed to conventional criminal charges — rose by 42 percent last year since President Donald Trump took office. Just over 110,000 people in this category were detained across the country since last March.

"There's no population off the table," ICE acting director Tom Homan said at a December news conference. "If you're in this country illegally, we're looking for you, and we're looking to apprehend you."

Craig Shagin, an immigration lawyer in Harrisburg, characterizes ICE actions as "aggressive at best, unlawful at worst. Time and again, we hear from our clients that they're driving down the street, and they're pulled over, for no apparent reason.

"Every day and in every way, we're becoming a little bit closer to [Communist] East Germany," Shagin told VOA. "This is having a very deleterious effect in our life, our social life."

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One Immigration Attorney Discusses ICE Tactics
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Father Orlando Reyes of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church agrees the arrests are having an impact on the city's Hispanic community.

"People are afraid to go to the store or even come to church," Reyes told VOA, adding that almost every week he hears about an ICE arrest. Reyes' church is in the Allison Hill neighborhood, where a number of ICE arrests reportedly took place.

St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church is located in Harrisburg’s Allison Hill neighborhood, where a number of ICE arrests reportedly have taken place. "People are afraid to go to the store or even come to church," says Father Orlando Reyes. (Photo: M. Kornely / VOA)
St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church is located in Harrisburg’s Allison Hill neighborhood, where a number of ICE arrests reportedly have taken place. "People are afraid to go to the store or even come to church," says Father Orlando Reyes. (Photo: M. Kornely / VOA)

Local police officials say they have heard the arrests are continuing but are more targeted, focusing on specific addresses and places of employment. They say they get calls from people seeking help because their family members have disappeared. Two or three weeks later, the officials say, the missing individual turns up at the immigration detention facility in nearby York, Pennsylvania, after having been arrested by ICE. ICE officials do not inform local authorities when they are in the city, nor is ICE required to do so.

The aim of the stepped-up enforcement by the Trump administration is to stop illegal immigration.

"As long as people think that if they can get by the fine men and women of the border patrol and no one is looking for them — those days are over," Homan warned. "We're looking for them."

But for Raul, who has been in the United States for 10 years, the crackdown is difficult to understand. He says he has worked hard — first as a migrant farm worker and later finding steady work in Harrisburg, always paying his taxes and staying out of trouble. Now, the father of two American-born children worries about what would happen if he is deported back to Mexico.

"We would all go," he said, even though his children speak more English than Spanish. "We don't want that, because the truth is, we have our lives here, and we came here in search of a better life."

The state capitol building is seen in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.(Photo: M. Kornely / VOA)
The state capitol building is seen in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.(Photo: M. Kornely / VOA)

Thriving city

In the meantime, Harrisburg is thriving. Sitting on the banks of the Susquehanna River, the city has diversified with service-related industries, including health care and technology, according to Forbes magazine.

"Downtown Harrisburg has become a popular destination for live entertainment from jazz to contemporary music performing in its various night clubs," the magazine said.

ICE's increased enforcement has not impacted Harrisburg's businesses or its labor force, according to the Harrisburg Chamber of Commerce. Chamber president David Black tells VOA he has read about the ICE actions, but has not heard of any adverse consequences.

"I can't speak for every single business in the Harrisburg area, but we've seen no impact. It's business as usual," he said.

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