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Essay: Fear Of La Migra Has Always Been Around For LA's Latinos

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The author and his father in 1967 at their home in City Terrace. (Courtesy of the Del Real family)

I was born in Los Angeles to Mexican immigrant parents. As a child growing up on L.A.'s Eastside during the 1970s, I was aware of La Migra -- the name we used for federal immigration officials.

"Watch out for La Migra, they're going to get you."

These are things I heard in my neighborhood and on the streets as I played. Even though I was born here, I was afraid. The fear was always there.

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It's a fear I felt again, however irrationally, when President Trump announced deportations were coming on Twitter. Then he used social media, again, to say they were postponed.

But not the fear, it wasn't postponed. Instead it remains, lingering for some Angelenos no matter the political maneuvers made last weekend.

The ICE raids Trump foreshadowed were to take place in several major U.S. cities at the behest of his administration. A 12-minute phone call between Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has -- for the moment -- put them on pause.

Still, the President warned on his personal Twitter account Saturday, he was giving Democrats and Republicans two weeks to "get together and work out a solution to the asylum and loophole problems at the Southern Border."

"If not," he added. "Deportations start!"

It's far from the first time immigrants in L.A. have braced for raids.


"After several forays into East Los Angeles, the agents found the streets deserted, with local merchants complaining that the investigations were bad for business. In the rural sections of the county surveyed by Watkins' men, whole families disappeared from sight."

The passage above came from historian Abraham Hoffman's book Unwanted Mexican Americans in the Great Depression. The moment it documents took place in 1931.

It's a different time and these are different immigrants that are being targeted.

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In the era Hoffman writes about, and for many decades after it, Los Angeles' Latino community was dominated by people of Mexican descent. Political turmoil in Central America that began in the 1980s shifted the Latino demographics in the city of Los Angeles. The Latino population in Los Angeles and the nation for decades now includes El Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans and many others from this region.

But the fear has never changed. Fear for Los Angeles Latinos has always been around.

The movie Born in East L.A. came out in 1987. Even though it was a comedy, the movie satirized the fear of raids and deportation. The movie tried to make us laugh, but the fear still lingered.

Anti-Proposition 187 protesters demonstrate outside the Heritage Foundation in Washington in 1994 as then-California Gov. Pete Wilson spoke inside. (Joe Marquette/AP)

Just seven years later, Proposition 187 was on the ballot in California. It was an attempt to create a state-run citizenship screening system that would keep people without legal status from accessing public education, healthcare (except in an emergency) and many other services in the state.

I was an organizer for the "No on Proposition 187" campaign. It was my first job out of college. I was filled with a sense of progressive purpose and I felt this proposition was unjustly targeting my community.

Brown people were scared. They felt targeted.

Today, the threatened ICE raids -- which, by the way, are very similar to raids that have gone on for years under both Republican and Democratic administrations -- are again targeting immigrant communities and all the people who live in them.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has, for now, decided against a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, the threat of such a question adds to the fear in immigrant communities.

  • Should people participate in the census, or not?
  • What happens if they do?
  • What happens if they don't?
  • Would the government use that question against them.

Read: LA Explained: The 2020 Census

Immigrants are often undercounted by the census. A drop in participation impacts all of us, politically, socially and financially.

The author's aunts and uncles at a wedding in Boyle Heights in 1967. (Courtesy of the Del Real family)

I've been here my entire life. I was born in the heart of Hollywood at Kaiser Permanente Hospital. I was educated with the tough love of nuns and Irish Christian Brothers. I received my Bachelor's Degree with honors from UC Santa Barbara. I have a good job and live in a safe place.

Still, I will be very careful if someone knocks on my door. Immigrant rights activists and attorneys are instructing families not to open their doors if ICE comes to visit.

On the streets, protests have taken place outside the Metropolitan Detention Center on Alameda Street in Downtown L.A.

This is what fear perpetuates. Will the fear ever go away? At some point we have to answer the door.

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