Well-meaning tech-savvy progressives and a huge Central American population are making the San Francisco Bay Area the perfect place for immigration raid rumors to spread like wildfire.
By midday Wednesday there were multiple reports of immigration officials lingering in front of a San Francisco elementary school. Tweets, Facebook updates, and even Instagram posts reported immigration checkpoints at grocery stores all over the Bay Area. There were also reports of immigration agents rounding up day laborers at a Home Depot in Hayward.
The local Univision newsroom in San Francisco said it received dozens of calls reporting similar immigration agent sightings. Immigrant rights advocates and legal resource centers also said calls with similar reports were rampant.
But all of the reports turned out to be false, according to immigration officials and other social media users who went looking for the raids with the intent to share pictures and video.
Rumors launched soon after the Washington Post reported that the Department of Homeland Security was preparing to launch raids targeting Central American families who entered the country without legal status in early 2014. The news quickly turned into fear and outrage that was shared online and offline—the report was published just before Christmas Eve, the day most Central Americans gather with family to celebrate the holidays.
Advocates say false rumors are thriving because immigrant communities have little trust in immigration officials, who did in fact detain a reported 121 individuals on January 2nd. In San Francisco, it also doesn’t help that last year the city became the epicenter of a debate over sanctuary laws that help protect immigrants from being transferred to federal immigration officials.
Some rumors in the Bay Area were so detailed that they were hard not to believe. Local legal resource centers got involved, reminding their social media followers that they were available in the event family members were detained.
One rumor started off with a friend of a friend connected to somebody at the San Francisco school district who heard a principal received a courtesy warning of an impending raid at an elementary school. The alleged school was in the middle of the Mission District, the historically Mexican and Central American part of town. A spokesperson for the school district said they had not heard of any such report or that immigration officials were in front of the school, like another rumor alleged.
Across the bay in Oakland there were reports of immigration officials detaining people at a grocery store frequented by Latinos.
Mary Mad shared the information of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rounding people up at the Oakland grocery story after she read it on a local listserv for her Oakland neighborhood.
“I was outraged by this news, and I am good at getting the word out on Twitter, so I shared it right away,” she told Fusion. In a matter of a few hours her tweet was re-tweeted close to 300 times.
An hour after she posted her tweet another user responded saying he went to the grocery story and saw no signs of immigration officials. By that evening the grocery store chain was trying to clear up the rumors on their Facebook page.
An ICE official told Fusion there have been no special enforcement actions currently underway in the Bay Area.
“Our officers there, like our personnel in the Los Angeles area, are continuing to work routine, targeted cases,” the spokesperson said.
Immigration advocates are frantically trying to figure out a solution to deal with the rumors. Rumors have spread at a slower pace in Southern California where there were reports of a warehouse raid that nabbed 11 workers, though ICE officials and the Chino Police Department had no records of an operation. The New York Times also reported on rumors of raids. And today in Massachusetts the news of "the specter of immigration raids" made the front page of the Boston Globe.
“We need to create a process so that we can quickly confirm and spread information when it is true and and let people know when it is not true,” said Sandy Valenciano, an organizer with California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, an immigrants' rights group.
Valenciano, who is undocumented and lives in Oakland, said sharing information was important for immigrant communities to come closer together. But she also said hearing rumors of nearby immigration raids can have a lasting impact on individuals and families.
Valenciano said hearing these rumors can trigger “lots of fear and put people in a constant position of grief, panic, anxiety and depression.” She said the rumors are a reminder that people like her are “in a country that doesn't want to accept us."
She suggested people always ask and consider the source of information before sharing it on social media.
“I try to get the root of where this rumor started,” said Valenciano.
Several immigrant rights groups have launched hotlines that help monitor ICE raids and confirm reports before they’re shared widely. The ICE out of LA Coalition in Los Angeles has a toll-free number available to collect information and share updates online. Just Cause, a community rights group in Oakland, also encourage their members on Wednesday to record or take photos of raids in their community to help disseminate more accurate information.
After thriving online, the rumors on Wednesday also moved offline.
Olga Tomchin, an immigration attorney with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, was at a rally in San Francisco denouncing the raids when she heard about the rumors. She says she wasn’t online all day but that at least a dozen people mentioned the reports to her.
“We're seeing the power the community has to share knowledge and information,” Tomchin said.
Tomchin said the good news is that people are sharing information. “This is one of the purest forms of community organizing,” she said, adding that “know your rights” pamphlets and memes are also being shared online.
“Instead of just posting fear and rumors people should share information about their rights when dealing with police and ICE, so that it empowers people,” Tomchin said.