Hundreds of immigrant rights activists and supporters demonstrated in Columbia Heights on Monday to protest several recent arrests by federal agents in the heart of the District’s historically Central American community.
Details of the arrests remain vague, but activists and local residents who witnessed them say Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detained at least four individuals — and possibly up to a dozen — over the past week at a private home, inside local businesses and in front of an apartment complex on 16th Street NW.
Advocates said the arrests are unusual in Washington, a “sanctuary city” that prides itself on protecting undocumented residents and discourages police cooperation with federal immigration enforcement efforts.
“They are our neighbors,” said Ben Beachy, a local activist working with Sanctuary DMV, a coalition of community-based organizers supporting immigrant communities. “They came to escape death threats in Central America and poverty in Mexico. If D.C. aspires to be a sanctuary, it needs to do more to prevent this.”
Justine M. Whelan, a spokeswoman for ICE, confirmed that agents conducted immigration enforcement actions last week in the city but said she could not give details regarding the number, charges or identities of those arrested.
In a statement, Whelan said agents do “not conduct raids or target individuals indiscriminately.”
Advocacy groups planned Monday’s rally after learning late Friday that at least three arrest operations had taken place in Columbia Heights and Petworth last week.
At the rally, more than 200 people chanted “ICE out of D.C.!” in Spanish and English. Clergy members stood alongside neighborhood residents, and Sanctuary DMV volunteers handed out fliers for “deportation defense training.”
The office of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting representative in Congress, said she had requested a briefing from ICE to learn more about the arrests.
Jairo Valencia, of the organization Many Languages One Voice, said residents of the 16th Street apartment complex told him ICE agents came into the building looking for two people but ended up arresting two other men.
The wife of one of them, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is undocumented, said two agents identifying themselves as police came to her door last Monday and asked for her husband, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. They said they thought he could help them in a case they were investigating, the woman said.
Her husband, 23, had been in contact with D.C. police recently after being assaulted, and the woman said she thought the agents were city police officers. She told them her husband wasn’t home but would be soon.
When he came back from playing soccer and heard what had happened, he flagged down a D.C. patrol car and asked the officers what they needed, said his wife, who is from El Salvador. The officers were confused but, after checking with department officials, let the man go, she said.
The two ICE agents then returned to the apartment and took the man and his brother, who also lives there, into custody in front of their neighbors.
“They deceived me, and now I have no hope,” said the woman, who has been in the United States since 2009 and has a young daughter who is an American citizen. “My husband wanted to cooperate. He never thought it would be immigration. It’s not fair.”
In response to questions about the enforcement, D.C. police spokeswoman Brianna Jordan said the department “had no involvement in the alleged arrests” and “does not inquire about immigration status, being that D.C. is a sanctuary city.”
Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.