As the justice department threatens a crackdown on ‘sanctuary cities’, rumours of Ice raids stoke fear in a neighborhood already diminished by development
For at least two generations, Willets Point been known as the “Iron Triangle”. A 48-acre site in Queens, in New York City, its small auto repair shops and stores selling used car parts have given thousands of new migrants a vital start in the job market.
Now, despite New York City’s status as a so-called sanctuary city for undocumented migrants, the Central American workers who once pitched for business on the corners of Willets Point are disappearing. They fear that under the Trump administration’s hardline policy, they could be rounded up and deported.
Rumors circulate of raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) officers in nearby Jackson Heights, as do stories of mothers reluctant to take children to school, or to collect food stamps. On Saturday, workers in the area declined to speak on the record or be photographed. The risks were too great, they said.
“This was an area that really helped immigrants,” said Arturo Olaya, owner of Arthur’s Auto Trim, a car upholstery shop on 36th Avenue, who came to the US from Medellín, Colombia. “It was a place where they could start from the bottom and start to build successful lives.
“But now they are scared. They don’t want to take this harassment, and they don’t want to be deported.”
Olaya is prominent figure in the neighborhood, president of the Willets Point Defense Committee, a coalition that for a decade has fought the city’s efforts to clear out as many as 225 businesses and make way for a $3bn development including a convention centre, a mall and housing.
Much of Willets Point, which sits in the shadow of Citi Field, thehome of the New York Mets baseball team which was completed in 2009, has already been cleared.
Trump’s crackdown threatens to make life more difficult still. Businesses report a downturn in customers, who may themselves not wish to come for fear they will be stopped by law enforcement.
“Mr Donald Trump wants to do what he promised to his people but it’s crazy,” Olaya said. “Who is going to want to do the jobs these people do? Who is going to do the deliveries, who is going to do the dishes, pick up the garbage, cook. The people here don’t want to do those things.”
The problems facing the businesses of Willets Point have no clear origin or solution. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg led the effort to to clear the area for development. He has also declared his opposition to Trump’s immigration policy.
Now, it appears to many here, property developers are set to benefit from both policies while those on the lowest rung of the ladder pay the price.
Olaya, an American citizen, has worked and raised a family in the US. His children and his brother’s children have become doctors and dentists, joined the military, and become business owners.
“I have family all around the country and we have given our children to the United States,” he said. “If [Trump] closes the border you’d have two less doctors in the country. Is that what you want?”
If Trump forces US industries to leave Mexico and Central American countries, Olaya believes, there will be fewer jobs for deported people.
“There won’t be enough jobs to feed their families,” he said. “So what are they going to do? The wall is a disgrace. No matter how high he builds it, they’re going to keep coming.”
The best way to prevent immigrants coming to the US, Oyala said, would be to have more industry in Central and South America.
“People don’t come over here because they love the snow and the bad weather,” he said. “We come for the jobs and the money. But Trump wants to do things his own way. He’s not going to stop.”
On Friday, the Trump administration amplified its threats to crack down on New York and eight other cities that have opposed newly aggressive immigration policies.
In a statement the new authorities in the justice department also accused New York City of being “soft on crime” saying that Mayor Bill de Blasio was “hamstringing the brave NYPD officers” because of “city hall politics”.
In response, De Blasio said such remarks were “absolutely outrageous”. James O’Neill, head of New York’s police department, similarly rejected the justice department’s claims, saying they showed “a willful disregard for the facts”.
O’Neill noted that 2016 saw the fewest shootings in New York City history since it began keeping records, and that since 1993, “murder has decreased 82%, shootings have decreased 81%, and overall crime has decreased 76%. These are the facts.”
Despite such defiance, Willets Point auto shop owner Pasiana Rodriguez, a US citizen from the Dominican Republic, said the city’s refusal to cooperate with federal immigration authorities was not of great comfort to workers in the area.
“Whenever we see immigration people or police,” he said, “people are scared. It’s putting too much pressure on the people. They don’t want to send their children to school. Even people who come to get their car fixed don’t want to come if they don’t have papers.”
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