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‘We stuck together like neighbors are supposed to do’: A community thwarts a father’s ICE arrest

Immigration activists and neighbors rallied together July 22 to stop ICE officers from taking a Tennessee man into custody. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

For two weeks, people kept spotting the mysterious truck. An unmarked white Ford F-150, it circled the streets of Hermitage, a Nashville neighborhood where trampolines and plastic slides sit outside unpretentious ranch houses on the outskirts of the city. Several residents told the Tennessean that they didn’t think much of it — until early Monday, when the truck turned on its flashing red and blue lights to stop their neighbor as he left his house with his 12-year-old son.

Inside were two agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who had been lying in wait as the sun rose. They had an administrative order granting them permission to detain the father, who had reportedly lived in the community for 14 years. But things didn’t go as planned. Hours later, the agents left empty-handed, after neighbors worked together to block the man’s arrest.

“We stuck together like neighbors are supposed to do,” Felishadae Young told WZTV.

Over the past year, advocates have used increasingly bold tactics to try to prevent ICE from detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants. In March, a New York activist giving a ride to two undocumented immigrants successfully prevented ICE from arresting his passengers when he refused to open his car door, noting that the officers didn’t have a warrant issued by a judge. In North Carolina, 27 people were arrested after they blockaded an ICE van in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to prevent the deportation of a man taking sanctuary at a local church. Amid President Trump’s threats of large-scale raids, activists have also been training undocumented immigrants on their rights. Last week, a teenage girl in New Jersey reportedly prevented ICE agents from arresting her parents because she refused to open the door without a signed warrant.

Community members in Nashville, too, were prepared. When a reporter from the Nashville Scene arrived, one neighbor could be heard observing, “They came to the wrong community on the wrong day.”

The man whom ICE was trying to arrest has not been publicly identified, but a neighbor, Angela Glass, described him and his family as “good people.” When flashing lights lit up their quiet subdivision at around 6 a.m. Monday, residents wondered what was going on. Glass told Nashville Public Radio that she had lived near the family for five years but never realized that the father wasn’t a citizen.

Glass told the station that neighbors were shocked. “Everybody got mad and was like, ‘They don’t do nothing, they don’t bother nobody, you haven’t got no complaints from them. Police have never been called over there. All they do is work and take care of their family and take care of the community.’”

Word spread through the neighborhood as more people woke up and stepped outside to see what was happening. Soon, advocates from immigrant rights groups had been alerted, and the driveway grew crowded. The onlookers, who urged the father and his son to stay in his vehicle, began live-streaming the standoff.

Hours passed as the temperature in Nashville rose to nearly 90 degrees. Neighbors made sure that the father and son had damp rags to keep them cool in the summer heat. They brought them sandwiches, and they refilled the gas tank so the vehicle’s air conditioning could keep running.

"We made sure they had water, they had food, we put gas back in the vehicle when they were getting low just to make sure they were okay,” Young told WTVF.

Meanwhile, ICE officers tried to cajole the pair into stepping out of the van. They dangled the possibility of cash rewards, telling the boy and his father that they would have to get out eventually, witnesses told the Tennessean.

“They were very mean to them,” Young said. “They talked to them like they were nothing.”

Nothing legally obligated the father to get out of his car. Daniel Ayoade Yoon, an attorney who does not represent the family but showed up at their house after learning about the standoff, told the Nashville Scene that the agents had arrived without a warrant signed by a judge.

“They were here with an administrative order that they wrote themselves,” he said. “There’s no judicial review, no magistrate review, no probable cause. It doesn’t give them the authority to break down a door like you would with a normal warrant. They didn’t try to do that. But they still lied to the individuals inside and to people on the scene about, ‘No, this does give us that authority.’”

Singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ a church surrounded an ICE van to stop an arrest. 27 were jailed.

Finally, after about four hours, the agents gave up and left. Clasping hands, the diverse group of activists, neighbors, and concerned community members surrounded the van. They formed a human chain, lining the pathway that led to the family’s modest brick home. The van’s doors flung open, and the father and son raced inside the house. Cheers erupted from the crowd as the front door slammed behind them.

Later, the wife of the man whom ICE had been trying to detain came to the door. She apparently had been waiting inside all along.

“Thank you,” she said in Spanish, as she choked back tears. “Thank you to everyone who supported us, from the bottom of my heart.”

There was little doubt that the agents would return. Neighbors formed another human chain to shield the family as they left the house with their belongings stuffed into a black trash bag, then got into their cars and sped away, Nashville Public Radio reported. By Monday night, their whereabouts were unknown.

Bryan D. Cox, an ICE spokesman, said in a statement that the officers left the scene to de-escalate the situation. He also noted that 90 percent of the people arrested by ICE in the past fiscal year had either a prior criminal conviction or a pending criminal charge, and said that the man who agents were seeking in Nashville was a “convicted criminal” who had an outstanding removal order. The man has not been identified and it’s unclear what his previous criminal conviction entailed. The Metro Nashville Police Department has indicated that he was not wanted on any active warrants.

Though Tennessee law bars local governments from declaring themselves sanctuary cities, Nashville has a policy in place that prohibits police officers from assisting in ICE operations unless they have a warrant saying that a crime has taken place. Since immigration enforcement is considered a civil matter, police aren’t allowed to get involved.

Monday’s stalemate demonstrated how that policy plays out in real time: Police officers showed up at the house and monitored the situation but didn’t interfere. A statement from the department said that officers were instructed to “not be involved in the service of the detainer, but to stand by from a distance to keep the peace if necessary.”

There’s no indication that the effort to detain the Hermitage father was part of a larger ICE operation, and Nashville was not among the cities expected to see mass arrests of undocumented migrants last week. Nonetheless, Trump’s announcement left many in the community on edge, and the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition told WZTV that its phones had been ringing off the hook as immigrants questioned whether it was safe to go to work.

The highly publicized showdown on Monday may have added to those fears. In the wake of the confrontation, the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office made a point of emphasizing that it had no involvement in ICE raids, and Nashville Mayor David Briley (D) reiterated that city police officers were there only as peacekeepers.

“I am keenly aware that this type of activity by our federal government stokes fear and distrust in our most vulnerable communities, which is why we do not use our local resources to enforce ICE orders,” he said in a statement.

Neighbors, meanwhile, described it as a wake-up call.

“We’re going to be watching out now from this point on,” Glass told Nashville Public Radio, “because we won’t let this happen again.”

This story has been updated.

Drea Cornejo contributed reporting.