Elena Flores rapped her hands helplessly against an Immigration and Customs Enforcement van, crying as it pulled away from Lillian’s restaurant, a popular rendezvous in Arlandria-Chirilagua, around sundown on July 14.
Her 31-year-old son, Herlin Flores, sat inside just as helpless. He had gone from family provider to federal detainee in a matter of minutes during a raid that has rattled residents and hushed the streets of the usually bustling Latino neighborhood.
Authorities arrested Herlin, a native of Honduras, after he failed to produce government-issued identification, according to Elena. But she wonders why he was asked in the first place; socializing outside a restaurant with neighbors is no crime, and Herlin is a painter who would rather juggle a soccer ball than cause trouble, she said.
Herlin was not the only one taken. Elena says her nephew, 21-year-old Erick Carbajal, also was arrested.
“ICE arrested the two individuals on immigration violations as part of a targeted law enforcement action aimed at taking known gang members and associates off the streets in our communities,” ICE spokeswoman Cori Bassett said in a statement.
Neither man had a criminal record, according to the Alexandria Circuit Court.
“My son and nephew, all they do is work, and in their free time play soccer,” Elena said through an interpreter. “My son was basically my support system for me and my daughter. Now that the rent and the bills are coming, and are high, I don’t know what to do.”
She maintains temporary protected status and a work permit.
Rumors of the raid pervade the neighborhood. Between five and eight people were arrested, according to witnesses, though one estimate put the figure at 57 a perilous exaggeration, according to Esteban Graces of Tenants and Workers United, a community center in Arlandria-Chirilagua.
“That’s the dangerous part of this the panic because when the rumors grow, the streets become more and more empty,” Graces said. “And the community feels like they can’t come outside of their homes.”
Details of the raid could not be released until after the Times’ deadline, ICE officials said.
Elena said her son was profiled not targeted individually but asked to show an ID “out of nowhere.” He’s at a detention center in Virginia where his lawyer will soon visit.
“I am afraid, and I say it’s not fair what they’re doing picking up people who work for a living,” Elena said. “Sometimes they take workers and they’re not taking gang members they’re taking decent people. They just go around picking up whoever.”
She hopes the court will free her son so her family can stay together, “otherwise I don’t have help and I’m not sure where I’m going to live,” she said.
The case could be similar to a pending trial in Baltimore, according to immigration lawyer and former Alexandria resident Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg. He points to a 2009 raid during which ICE agents arrested 24 Hispanic day workers but ignored the black and white laborers gathered at a 7-Eleven.
“On the one hand, if [authorities] are looking for a specifically named individual and have credible evidence against him, then it’s a legitimate law enforcement tactic to go to that place and make an arrest,” Sandoval-Moshenberg said. “On the other hand, if [agents] were literally just rolling by and saw a bunch of brown guys sitting on a wall and said, ‘Hey, let’s see what’s going on here,’ that smacks of collective punishment, which is really an anathema to our constitutional system.”
Businesses like TU Communications on Mount Vernon Avenue have suffered from sparse foot traffic since the arrests. The prepaid cell phone store has seen a marked decrease in business, said manager Roberto Prez.
“Nobody comes in, and everyone is still talking about [the arrests] all the time,” Prez said.
Next door, El Pulgarcito has seen a 90 percent drop in business, according to Maria, a chef there who would not give her last name. One of her best customers was taken in the raid, she said.
The arrests have deadened the streets of Arlandria-Chirilagua but activists like Graces, who is frustrated with stagnate immigration reform, believe it could be a spark for the community.
“We’re advocating on behalf of people who aren’t criminals, who maybe have come into the country undocumented and are existing without status,” he said. “Mixed-status families get torn apart during raids. That’s what we’re advocating against.”