WASHINGTON — Reeling from work-site raids that have jailed thousands of illegal workers, immigration organizations are quietly assembling informal networks to gather advance information about federal enforcement operations and to help locals and laborers prepare.
Students, union officials, waiters and others are volunteering to call in tips about Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents checking into hotels or renting facilities, about the sudden appearance of out-of-town cars and about a surge in action at the local courthouse.
"Is ICE going to tell us when they're coming? What they're doing? No," said Socorro Leos, a community organizer for Mississippi Immigrants' Rights Alliance. "You have to be working with the grass roots, on the ground, training them to be alert, to be very, very conscious, to open their eyes and senses."
The spontaneous development of these intelligence networks stems from the scale of recent ICE raids: hundreds of agents and vehicles plus a major infrastructure.
"These are huge paramilitary operations," said Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "They use helicopters, jeeps, mobile homes for processing people. They have to have jail space lined up. It's very hard to do that in secrecy."
Still, ICE raids rely on the element of surprise.
Immigrants' advocates say they do not use warnings to block raids or urge workers to flee; rather, they say, they try to soften the blow. They liken the effect of a raid to a natural disaster.
"We cannot tell people, 'Don't go to work,' " Leos said, adding that the networks cannot know for sure when or where ICE agents will appear.
Organizations hold "know your rights" sessions and encourage workers to set up phone trees for rapid information sharing. Activists arrange legal help for those who are detained and make sure court-appointed lawyers have access to experts who can explain the complexities of immigration law. Groups ensure that food pantries are stocked, that caregivers are ready for any children left unattended, and that funds are collected for families that lose breadwinners.
The effort has parallels to the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, when churches brought Central American refugees to the U.S. to protect them from political violence. More recently, churches have offered shelter to illegal immigrants facing deportation.
"The sanctuary movement is certainly an appropriate precedent" to the networks, said David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University. "Both arose out of a sense that the immigration law and its enforcement are fundamentally unjust and illegitimate."
ICE, however, believes the immigration advocates' efforts are misdirected.
"The work of advocacy groups is very important and while we appreciate their right to do so, we believe their efforts would better serve the public if they encouraged individuals to comply with the law rather than impede our efforts to enforce it," said ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel.
Advocates for expanded restrictions on immigration consider the strategy appalling.
"This really is to make it as difficult as possible for ICE to do its job," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "The idea that this is just to soften the blow after the enforcement happens is just disingenuous."
In communities where raid fears run especially high, advocates try to vet intelligence before launching preparations.
"You have to step back and say, 'Is this immigration, or is this something else?' " said Diego Bonesatti, a community organizer in Melrose Park, Ill. A routine traffic stop for seat belts could easily be misinterpreted, Bonesatti said. "Because people are on edge, you have to have people check it out and verify."
Organizers also emphasized the need to separate rumor from fact. "Now, if there are rumors of white vans, people won't go to church or school," said Julien Ross, director of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. "Rumors and panic easily spread. We want to make sure we don't say there's a raid when there isn't."
Federal officials have conducted a number of big raids recently.
At a manufacturing plant in Laurel, Miss., where about 600 workers were detained late last month, organizers knew something was afoot in the region. But they thought the raid would be on the Gulf Coast, perhaps at a casino.
A week before the raid, workers called to say that ICE agents -- lots of them -- had checked into area hotels. The next day, a caller reported overhearing a conversation at the local courthouse about a short-term need for interpreters.
"The only thing you have is alert workers," Leos said. "That's the way we were able to anticipate a little ahead. Not because we have a top-secret organization that called us, but because the workers have been taught to open their eyes and ears."
The calls kept coming, from waiters, residents, even the spouse of a local official.