Will police ask about immigration status? Will federal agents come arrest me in the vineyard where I work? What if immigration officers come to my house looking for someone who isn’t here?
Garcia raised her hand and asked the question that makes her stomach turn: What will happen to our children if we’re deported when they are at school? Again and again, Sgt. Nick Casteneda and another Spanish-speaking sergeant tried to reassure about 100 people who nearly filled the folding chairs Sunday in the auditorium of a downtown church: Local police do not enforce immigration law; make a plan for who will care for your children if you are detained or deported.
“We don’t work with ICE, we don’t ask questions about immigration,” Casteneda said in Spanish, referring to a common acronym for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “The only reason we should be pulling you over is for a stoplight violation, or for other laws. But as long as you obey the law, you have nothing to worry about the Healdsburg Police Department.”
Latino residents have packed “know your rights” seminars about immigration law held across Sonoma County since they found themselves the focus of President Donald Trump’s mission to deport immigrants by the millions.
An estimated 500 people have filled the folding chairs at seven immigrant rights events held in as many weeks in Healdsburg, the hub of Sonoma County’s wine industry, where about one-third of the city’s 11,700 residents are Hispanic or Latino.
Sunday was supposed to be an annual Latino Town Hall for the city. But Police Chief Kevin Burke said heightened levels of fear over deportation called for a different event.
Instead of a formal meeting at City Hall, the city joined with the nonprofit Latino services organization Corazón de Healdsburg to organize a community fair and immigrant rights seminar in a neutral place, St. John the Baptist Church on Matheson Street.
The event — called Comunidad Unida y Segura, or Safe and United Community — started Sunday afternoon right after Spanish-language Mass.
In the auditorium, Burke addressed the group in Spanish, vowing to protect all residents equally and explaining the Police Department’s focus is not immigration enforcement.
“Our Police Department is your Police Department,” Burke said.
Casteneda urged residents to ask for a Spanish-speaking officer when dealing with police if they are uncomfortable talking in English.
Outside the auditorium, people served hot food, a local doctor gave free blood pressure readings and a Zumba instructor led a group in a heart-thumping routine. Volunteers helped children draw and cut out images for collages. There was face-painting and hot food and entertainment by traditional Mexican dance troops.
Leticia Romero, executive director of Corazón de Healdsburg, a cultural organization formed last year to help link Latino residents with local services, said it’s just as important to dispel rumors about local immigration raids as it is educating people about their rights, such as refusing to open the door to officers without warrants.
“It’s an extraordinary time, and I’m amazed at how the community is coming forward, asking how we can help our undocumented neighbors,” Romero said.
Seated in the shade, Leonardo Reyes, 50, of Healdsburg said he is a citizen, but many members of his family are not. Reyes, who drives a forklift, came to the seminar to learn how to help people and learn more about whether immigration raids are occurring in Sonoma County.
Standing nearby, Jose Angel, 50, said he is skeptical when police say they don’t cooperate with federal immigration enforcement because “If ICE agents come, they’re not going to let us know, they’re not going to do anything.”
Patricia Frias, a Head Start employee from Rohnert Park, watched as a group of girls drew suns on paper plates. She said the fear has trickled down to even the youngest children, recalling a recent day when a 3-year-old boy came to her crying.
“He said, ‘All my family will be taken back to Mexico, and I don’t want to go,’” Frias said.
Garcia, who asked the question about the fate of children whose parents are deported, said she’s heard stories about that happening, and it doesn’t assuage her fears that most of those stories are from many years ago and occurred in other California cities. Her children, ages 5 and 12, are U.S. citizens, and she is in the process of acquiring legal residency through relatives who are citizens.
Garcia, who lives in Santa Rosa and cleans houses in Healdsburg, said she’s prepared for the worst, but prays it doesn’t come to that.
“Their grandparents can care for them if something happens to me — but I’m their mother,” Garcia said.
“I’m doing the job raising them. I’m responsible for what kind of schools they go to; I’m in charge of shaping their values. … I’m just like you but in different circumstances.”