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As rumors of roundup swirl through immigrant community, ICE officials deny a crackdown

Fear has made Pittsfield-based immigration lawyer Michele Sisselman a very busy woman lately. “It’s frightening,” she said. “And everybody is scared, including U.S. citizens.”

Great Barrington — Unconfirmed reports shooting through Facebook last week that six undocumented Great Barrington residents were arrested by immigration authorities and taken away from their Stockbridge Road apartment coincided with reports of an uptick in similar roundups across the country.

The posts that shot through Berkshire County social media last week are part of the national panic over reports of an upswing in federal immigration enforcement and harsher measures. The same thing happened in Boston last Saturday, for instance.

And news outlets across the country are trying to figure out whether President Donald Trump’s policies have truly stepped enforcement up, or if it just looks that way.

Boston-based U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) public affairs director Shawn Neudauer told The Edge that any arrests made by the agency are business as usual and unrelated to new policies. While he didn’t confirm it, he said he was unaware of local arrests last week.

“This is the first I’ve heard [about arrests] in Great Barrington,” he said.

Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh said, as far as he knew, no one was arrested in Great Barrington last week.

“As a professional courtesy, [ICE] will always swing by and let us know,” he added.

Walsh also said it was possible there was “some super secret thing they did on their own.” But in his experience, he said, he is kept in the loop.

On Facebook, Berkshires Activate and others had spread word of arrests in Great Barrington, nearby Hudson, New York, and Canaan, Connecticut.

ICE officials across the country are saying the agency’s work lately is routine: arresting people who are undocumented or deemed dangerous to national security, who have been tagged as criminals in the agency’s system.

But a tweet last Sunday by Trump indicates that he may be taking credit for the surge in raids following his “campaign promise” to deport undocumented residents nationwide.

“The crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise,” he tweeted Sunday. “Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!”

But Neudauer said the agency is “out in the community every single day, there are arrests every single day. This is nothing new.”

“We don’t ‘round people up,’ ” Neudauer added. “We don’t do random arrests. It’s targeted enforcement, meaning we’re looking for specific people.”

In an email he clarified that the agency is looking for “criminal aliens and other individuals who are in violation of our nation’s immigration laws.”

He further said that national reports have exaggerated the number of routine arrests.

“There are numerous false and blatant lies going on about ICE on social media,” he added. “It’s spinning out of control.”

Some immigration advocates, particularly in California and New York, say the upswing in ICE activity is real, and the agency’s actions more aggressive than in the past.

The Immigrant Defense Center has published an “ICE Raids Toolkit” to “defend against raids and “community arrests.”

Berkshire Immigrant Center's program coordinator Brooke Mead with former State Sen. Ben Downing, during a Senate presentation of a citation to the Immigrant Center.
Berkshire Immigrant Center’s program coordinator Brooke Mead with former State Sen. Ben Downing, during a Senate presentation of a citation to the Immigrant Center.

But other advocates are waiting a bit to see what pattern emerges over the next few weeks, and are busy gathering information. Brooke Mead, Program Coordinator for the Berkshire Immigrant Center in Pittsfield, said she wanted to withhold comment for the time being given all the rumors and panic.

“We want to make sure we’re giving out good information,” Mead said.

Others who work with foreign nationals say while they aren’t sure whether ICE activity has increased, fear certainly has.

Fear has made Pittsfield-based immigration lawyer Michele Sisselman a very busy woman lately.

“It’s frightening,” Sisselman said. “And everybody is scared, including U.S. citizens.”

Sisselman, who has practiced immigration law for more than 20 years, said the rumor mill is working overtime.

She said she had heard of only one person who was detained in Great Barrington last week; she is uncertain about why, including whether it was immigration-status related.

“But that doesn’t mean that there have not been more [arrests] subsequently,” she noted.

In a previous story, Berkshire Immigrant Center’s Executive Director Hilary Greene had said that ICE does work that is important to keeping communities safe, like rooting out human trafficking and removing dangerous criminals from circulation.

Sisselman says immigration advocates and ICE have cultivated a “good rapport.” She expects a continuation of this, but also said “we may see more enforcement actions in the future.”

“They have a job to do and we, as a community, must protect ourselves and our neighbors against abuses of Constitutional and federal law,” she added.

Those reports of arrests in Great Barrington came just one week after a group of residents added a sanctuary trust policy to the town warrant for voters to consider in May at Annual Town Meeting. While the town’s policy already states that it will not collaborate with federal officials to enforce federal immigration law, the citizens petition takes that up a notch by stipulating that police procedure officially include prohibition of “ICE detainers,” a second, documentation-related detention of a foreign national who has been otherwise released from police custody.

The local reports of ICE raids last week said they began in Hudson, New York, on the morning of February 7. Another reported raid that day was in nearby Canaan, Connecticut.

Mead said her organization was taking a measured approach to community fear, and said generating it was not helpful.

“Rumors can often do a lot of damage,” she said.

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