- The Washington Times - Monday, July 29, 2019

Cesar Vargas finished Army basic training earlier this year. On Monday, he put one of the guard duty strategies he learned at Fort Leonard Wood to work at home in Staten Island, trying to stop ICE from deporting some illegal immigrants.

Mr. Vargas deployed volunteers wearing green vests to patrol borough neighborhoods, ready to help should they detect deportation officers preparing to make an arrest.

He compared it to fire guard duty at a military camp, saying his volunteers worked in pairs, and took hour-long shifts from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m., which he said is the crucial time of day when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement visits neighborhoods looking to nab targets before they head out for the day.

“Our main goal is to ensure the community knows not to sign [or] say anything without speaking with an attorney and not open the door if ICE does not have a valid judicial warrant,” Mr. Vargas said. “It’s important we document and alert the public of unlawful and intimidating ICE enforcement actions.”

He’s one of a number of immigrant-rights activists across the country pushing back against ICE, which earlier this month began an operation aimed specifically at illegal immigrant families who snuck across the border, had their cases heard in immigration courts, were ordered deported and are defying those orders.

President Trump and ICE officials have cited the operation as a major test of border security, saying that if people can ignore deportation orders with impunity, it undermines the entire immigration system.

Out of some 2,000 potential targets, the first week of the operation netted just eight targets and seven “collateral” arrests of other illegal immigrants who were present when ICE officers attempted other arrests.

It doesn’t appear that any of those happened in Staten Island, though with ICE officers making up to 400 arrests on a given day even outside of the targeted migrant family operation, Mr. Vargas said the borough should be aware.

He said there was a case last week where ICE officers approached an apartment building and spoke with a worker there, identifying themselves as police and saying they wanted to speak with someone. They gave a name of someone who didn’t live there, Mr. Vargas said.

The worker denied them entry, but the fear spread nonetheless.

“All the families we work with there were terrified,” Mr. Vargas said, adding that they’ve worked to get temporary accommodations for some families elsewhere.

He knows the system well. He was an illegal immigrant, brought to the U.S. as a child, then earned status under the President Barack Obama’s DACA program. He attended law school, tried to become a lawyer in New York but was denied because of his legal status, worked for Sen. Bernard Sanders’ 2016 campaign, eventually won the right to practice law, and gained a green card through marrying a U.S. citizen.

That legal status allowed him to fulfill a long-held dream of joining the military, by signing up for the Army Reserves. He returned from training on July 4 — just as the new operation against the migrants families was looming.

Democratic politicians in Washington warned immigrants not to open doors, pointing out that an ICE warrant is usually an administrative document and not a criminal arrest warrant, so it isn’t sufficient to enter a home.

Across the country, communities reported moves to surround and protect illegal immigrants, facing down ICE officers.

Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence told reporters the heavy attention may have tamped down on the number of arrests his officers were able to make.

For Mr. Vargas, that’s part of the goal.

Monday’s first day of fire guard duty patrols was quiet, with no calls and apparently no ICE arrests in Staten Island.

He said the volunteers know what to look for, such as newer cars with tinted windows, when on the lookout for an ICE operation. He said one goal of the fire guard duty patrols is help illegal immigrants feel like they have support.

“We want you to go on with your life. We want you to talk to your neighbors. We are all Americans, we all contribute to this country, and we should not let divisive rhetoric take over,” he said.

But putting on his lawyer’s hat, he said he also hopes the patrols are a signal to ICE that activists are watching to make sure rights are respected. Mr. Vargas said they want ICE to go after serious public safety risks, but they need to follow rules.

“The most basic and elemental and critical is the right to request an attorney, and to affirmatively do so,” Mr. Vargas told The Washington Times.

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