Rumors began flying last month around Lynn, Massachusetts, that federal immigration officers were conducting large-scale raids to apprehend undocumented immigrants.
It was late February, after a federal judge had suspended President Donald Trump’s travel ban that prohibited immigrants from seven mostly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. In addition to the travel ban, the administration launched an aggressive new action to enforce existing immigration laws.
Trump's crack-down on undocumented immigrants was putting people on edge.
Some residents of Lynn, a working class, racially diverse city just outside Boston, described being confronted by officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. What was troubling, however, was that these ICE agents had threatened to arrest immigrants unless cash payments were handed over.
Talk around the town of more than 90,000 grew so intense that local police took to Facebook, writing, “there have been NO ICE raids in this city,” and adding that if someone posing as a federal agent demands money, it was “a scam.”
The continually changing immigration rules has created an uncertainty nationwide on the part of immigrants, with attorneys and advocacy organizations trying to figure out what to do next, and what advice to provide.
Adding to that anxiety are recurring reports of people fraudulently posing as federal immigration agents, hoping to extort money from desperate families trying to avoid deportation. Incidents have most recently been reported in New York City and Massachusetts.
After multiple incidents of that kind of fraud in New York, elected officials, including state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, have warned immigrants to be aware of scammers.
Authorities in Philadelphia are also on alert.
“Unfortunately, it's a common scam that we've seen over the years,” said Adrian Smith, a public affairs officer for the ICE field office there.
And it appears to still be happening.
On Friday, unconfirmed reports spread online of recent ICE raids in Framingham, Massachusetts, about 30 miles west of Boston. In an interview, Framingham Police Lt. Stephen Cronin said he was not aware of any such incidents.
Immigration officials did not respond to a question about whether any official activity had taken place in the town.
Cronin noted that typically, federal law enforcement agencies would reach out to local police ahead of any enforcement action. They are not required to do so, however. Whether or not federal officials give advance notice, local police can address the issue of a possible scam agent approaching residents, the lieutenant said.
“We can send an officer over there to confirm an agent’s identification, and we can call the ICE field office and ask them, ‘Do you have an operation going on?’” he said. “So we always recommend, if in doubt, call local law enforcement and if we don't already know [what’s going on], we have the resources to find out.”
Undocumented immigrants may be worried about contacting local police, a move that could reveal their status and subject them to deportation. But Cronin said that isn’t the objective of local law enforcement.
“As local police, it’s not a priority to us if you're a legal immigrant or not,” he said, noting an exception for violent felons. “What is priority is if we can avoid violent confrontation. We rather you did call, so we can avoid problems, and your immigrant status is not a great concern to us.”
But those fears may not be entirely unfounded. Trump has talked about enlisting local authorities to aid in his tougher deportation measures, and two county sheriffs in Massachusetts have been outspoken in their support of those efforts.
They appear to be in the minority however. A greater number of local officials have said that assisting federal agents would discourage immigrants from coming forward about other crimes, and would spread a sense of distrust through communities.
Rachael Yong Yow, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcment's New York field office, provided the following guidelines for anyone who may be subject to possible a scam involving someone posing as a federal agent:
*If someone is approached by a person claiming to be a federal immigration officer, respectfully request to see the person’s badge and credentials.
*If the person claiming to be a federal agent is unable to present a badge and credentials, it should raise a red flag. People should also be suspicious if the purported officer demands money or if he or she detains someone and refuses to disclose where that individual is being taken.
*If anyone suspects he or she has been contacted by an phony immigration officer, report the encounter immediately to local law enforcement or call ICE’s 24-hour tip line at 866-DHS-2-ICE.