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Immigration Agents Halt Operations In Northern California Fire Areas

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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents detain an immigrant on Oct. 14, 2015, in Los Angeles, California. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Immigration enforcement officers will not detain undocumented residents in areas affected by the fires in Northern California, and they'll stay clear of evacuation centers, shelters and food banks, according to the San Francisco field office for Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE.

"Our thoughts remain with those impacted by this tragedy," said James Schwab, a spokesman for ICE. “In consideration of these distressing circumstances, ICE will continue to suspend routine immigration enforcement operations, except in the event of a serious criminal presenting a public safety threat."

Schwab said the agency had stopped immigration-related operations and stings "as soon as it became apparent that this was a large emergency."

In recent days, sheriffs in Sonoma and Marin counties as well as other officials and representatives have tried to reassure undocumented evacuees that they should not be afraid to seek assistance at shelters. In the counties hard hit by the wildfires -- Sonoma and Napa -- Latinos make up about one-third of the population.

"We don’t have any kind of immigration people here," said Roy Pitts with the Red Cross, who was managing a shelter this week at the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa. "Our job is to shelter and feed them, and everyone is welcome no matter what. We want everyone to feel safe here."


Fears of immigration enforcement at evacuation centers kept undocumented residents away from much needed food and shelter, said Eva Santana, a Santa Rosa resident who had to flee her home in the middle of the night.

"They are scared of asking for help. They are scared of coming to these shelters," said Santana, 56, on Monday after flames had consumed entire neighborhoods in the northwest part of the city. "Some of my  neighbors had not left their homes yet because they might have been scared."

Santana said friends of hers had been sleeping in cars or preferred paying the cost of a hotel to coming to the shelters, and that she and others were "guessing" what areas had been affected by the fires due to electricity and communication shortages.

Hundreds of Latinos, many of them farmworkers, fleeing the fires in Sonoma County arrived on Monday morning at Point Reyes in Marin County. Some were sleeping in cars and tents, said Socorro Romo, with West Marin Community Services.

"I've heard rumors that people were afraid to go to the shelters," said Romo, who has worked in the Point Reyes area for more than 20 years. "That may be a concern for some of these folks staying away from official shelters."

But many evacuees are just looking for better air quality and a healthy distance from the fire zone, she added. Since the fires began, local residents and organizations have provided food and a place to stay for dozens of evacuees, said Romo.

On Wednesday, hundreds of Latino evacuees, including dozens of children, were staying at the shelter set up at Marin Exhibit Hall in San Rafael, where some Spanish-language resources were available.

For the intake process, evacuees are asked their names, contact information and whether they have any medical conditions or medication needs, said Laine Hendricks, a spokeswoman for Marin County.

"No questions of citizenship status; no request for citizen documents or Social Security cards," said Hendricks.

Schwab, with ICE, said shelters and evacuation centers -- along with schools and hospitals -- are "sensitive locations," places that ICE agents generally avoid.

"We would not go to an evacuation center or shelter anyways. Those are not places we typically operate in," he said.

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