It was just a small nugget of information, buried in the middle of what otherwise was the ultimate feel-good summer-heat-wave feature story, about a popular and somewhat quirky ice cream shop that has thrived in Kennett Square, a place where the Philadelphia exurbs yield to the mushroom farms that have drawn Mexican migrants for decades.
As related by my Inquirer colleague Katie Park, the one-room joint called La Michoacana on Kennett Square’s main drag is the brainchild of the manager of one of those mushroom farms, Noelia Scharon, who craved the exotic ice cream flavors of Mexico like avocado, mango and especially tamarind. Many days, it seems, the line for La Michoacana is out the door, but this summer the lines apparently have been a little shorter -- and also more white.
According to the article, “The place is especially popular with the locals, although Scharon has noticed fewer Latino families visiting amid increased deportation sweeps across the country. And the other day, as people stood in line waiting for ice cream, a customer quietly dropped off a Spanish-language informational packet about the rights of undocumented immigrants.”
“It makes me sad,” Scharon told the Inquirer’s Park. “At the same time, I worry about my business, of course, and the families, how they cannot enjoy themselves. It’s summer. It’s a time to go out with the kids and they’re not doing that because they’re scared.”
Scared. A few hours after reading about the Chester County ice creamery, I saw a picture on Twitter out of Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, a green space surrounded by a New York City waterfront neighborhood in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, a magnet for immigrants from China, Mexico and elsewhere. On a sunny weekend afternoon, the park was virtually empty.
According to the local Brooklyn Paper, “The threat of raids by federal immigration agents have left Sunset Park a ghost town, with locals heading indoors and store owners closing up shop as fear grips the neighborhood.” The trigger? Two attempted raids on local addresses by agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Both efforts were thwarted, by the way. The good news is that more and more immigrants now know their legal rights in the America, but the bad, horrible news is that this often comes at the cost of staying behind locked doors.
The last couple of nights, I’ve joined millions of Americans in watching 20 Democrats audition for the far-from-certain job of replacing Donald Trump in the White House in January 2021. I saw a lot of tussling in the weeds of America’s knotted health care system, and some mention of the humanitarian crisis at America’s southern border, with all the necessary condemnation of Trump’s policies that tear families apart and detain human beings in utterly inhumane conditions.
What I didn’t see on CNN’s ridiculously ornate stage in Detroit, and what was so sorely missed, was a sense of urgency that life in America has already fundamentally changed after just 30 months of Trump’s runaway presidency, that the silent streets of the nation’s cities are telling a story that is horrific in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. That immigrant communities like Kennett Square or Sunset Park are hearing the footsteps of a grim past we’d foolishly thought that civilization had buried in the 20th Century’s dustbin of history.
The fear in America’s immigrant communities has been a slow burn that arguably sparked on that June 2015 day when Trump announced his candidacy with a shot at “rapists” and “drug dealers” from Mexico and a mantra of “Build the wall!” It only intensified with his proposed and now half-realized “Muslim ban” and turned bright orange when Trump and his first attorney general Jeff Sessions “took the shackles off” ICE and unleashed it as a kind of secret state police. Suddenly, federal agents were pursuing immigrants in the places long held sacred -- dropping kids off at school, or coming out of church, or as they testified in a courthouse against actual criminals.
In December 2018, the Urban Institute conducted a nationwide survey of immigrant families and found that less than halfway through Trump’s term, one out of six had begun to avoid certain activities to avoid unplanned encounters with federal immigration cops -- and this went well beyond playing in a park or eating ice cream. Immigrants were increasingly hiding from key aspects of civic life like parent-teacher conferences in school, or going for a health check-up, or reporting crimes to the police.
“That’s a pretty high number,” the Urban Institute’s vice president Stephen Zuckerman told me, noting that the tally rose to one-in-three in a household where a family member had a vulnerable immigrant status. (The numbers also plummeted in white immigrant households, he said.) “But clearly there’s a sense that Hispanics are more likely to be cautious.”
That was all before Trump’s recent grand pronouncement that ICE was to begin a series of massive raids in 10 major U.S. cities that, the president claimed, sought to detain and deport “millions” of undocumented immigrants. Officials with ICE and its parent Department of Homeland Security almost sheepishly conceded the real targets were just 2,000 people with open deportation orders, then delayed the operation at least once and finally launched a low-key event that reportedly netted just 35 people.
And yet, bizarrely, the president’s actual immoral mission may have already been accomplished -- to pump up his xenophobic base going into his 2020 re-election year while creating a climate of fear in the cities that Trump and much of his voting bloc despise. The number of ICE deportees from these raids may only be in the dozens (for now), but the fear and paranoia of locked and bolted doors and deserted streets is hurting millions -- not just immigrants but anyone who enjoys the diversity of urban life.
The signs are everywhere. In Houston, an immigration-rights activist went to a church recently that caters to Latinos and reported to Buzzfeed News that the pews were empty, while in nearby supermarkets and a normally crowded Walmart there was not a “brown face” to be seen. Said Anna Núñez: “It breaks my heart because people are failing to realize the long-term damage and ramifications this has on the entire community, not just immigrants.”
And things are likely about to get worse. Late last month, the Trump administration unveiled a plan for what it calls “expedited removal” of undocumented immigrants to expand beyond the border area to the entire United States; it will also narrow the time frame of a procedure to whisk human beings out of the country without even a hearing before an immigration judge. This is nothing less than a brutal “papers please” regime, cloaked shamefully in an American flag.
These policies aren’t making America great again. To the contrary, they are eating away at our way of life. To think that criminals aren’t being reported and that our schools aren’t getting parental participation is infuriating. But to think of our neighbors and friends cooped up inside of a hot apartment instead of pushing their kid on a park swing while licking a tamarind ice cream cone is truly heartbreaking.