Raid threats have Petaluma immigrants on edge

Petalumans added to national protests against the treatment of migrants detained at the border.|

A threat of federal raids against undocumented immigrants has stirred fear in the local community and has led to a surge in Petaluma volunteers for a group that monitors enforcement actions and assists immigrants.

The Sonoma County Rapid Response Network, which provides a 24-hour hotline for immigrants, dispatches trained legal observers to raid locations, provides legal defense to affected communities, and offers accompaniment to immigrants after a raid, has been monitoring the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency after President Donald Trump threatened that deportation actions would start last weekend.

“Everyone is on pins and needles wondering what’s going on,” said Dennis Pocekay, a volunteer with the Petaluma branch of the Rapid Response Network. “We’re looking to get a lot more calls.”

Pocekay on Friday signed up volunteers to serve as monitors at a vigil to protest the treatment of detained migrants. The rally at the Petaluma Regional Library drew about 200 people, including Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett, and a representative from Rep. Jared Huffman’s office. Some held signs reading “No person is illegal,” “Reunite families now,” and “Hitler separated families too.” The “Lights for Liberty” vigil was part of a nationwide day of protest over the federal immigration policy.

Though large-scale raids that were said to begin on Sunday did not materialize in Sonoma County, the North Bay Organizing Project, which convened the rally, still had much to protest, including what organizers said was inhumane treatment of migrants at detention centers near the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Trump administration has cracked down on a surge in mostly Central American migrants seeking asylum this year, detaining parents separately from children and holding people in cramped, squalid cells, according to news reports.

“Together we stand in solidarity and speak out against unjust conditions at U.S. concentration camps,” said Amber Szoboszlai, co-chair of the North Bay Organizing Project’s Petaluma chapter.

Mario Castillo, co-chair of the Sonoma Valley Action Coalition, told the group gathered outside the library that he has assisted migrant families who have made their way to the North Bay, some with little money and in poor health. He said he is heartened by the outpour of community support.

“While there is tragedy happening, there is hope,” he said, “because people like you want to know how to help.”

Celeste Chavez, a Casa Grande High School graduate and co-leader of the Sunrise Sonoma County Hub, talked about growing up with a mother who is an undocumented immigrant and “living in a constant shadow of fear.” She said our leaders need to do a better job of treating people in this country with more humanity.

“People are people and it is about time we take care of each other,” she said.

Rima Makaryan, vice-chair of the Sonoma County Junior Commission on Human Rights, whose family came to the U.S. from Armenia, said that asylum seekers should not be treated as criminals.

“Detention centers are atrocities that will haunt the pages of U.S. history forever,” she said. “Searching for safety should never be a crime.”

Protesters waved signs and lined East Washington Street, which was bustling with the Friday evening commute. Many motorists honked in support. A few drove by waving Trump banners and yelling expletives at the crowd.

Cynthia Clarkson of Petaluma said she came out to show her support for immigrants.

“I’m really furious and scared because of the inhumane treatment of people in detention camps,” she said. “I have to feel like I’m doing something to stop this racist bullying.”

(Contact Matt Brown at

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