Many of the reports about immigration enforcement emerging from local communities in recent weeks have remained unconfirmed. The difficulty of discerning which reports are true is frustrating for local leaders trying to assuage the fear that has paralyzed pockets of San Diego’s Latino communities.

That’s because many of the warnings being spread among the Latino community by text messages and phone calls are being forwarded indiscriminately. Many appear to be untrue, said Christian Ramirez of the American Friends Service Committee, speaking at a forum on immigration last week. In response, some attendees rushed the stage to show him video evidence of immigration arrests in progress in store parking lots. He said they would be investigated

True or not, the rumors’ effect on local immigrant communities has been severe, snowballing paranoia and driving people indoors. My recent story on Linda Vista documented this process in one community. In other communities — such as City Heights — residents are planning protests against grocery stores thought to have allowed immigration officials inside.

But when I’ve asked people whether they’ve seen enforcement operations first-hand, many have told me they received a text message from a friend, or that a friend’s sister had seen a roadblock and passed the warning along. How those messages get distorted along the way is unclear, but if anything, they’re only heightening the fear unnecessarily, community leaders say.

“We’ve spoken to some of the schools, and absentees do appear to be higher than normal today,” Diana Ross, director of the Mid-City Community Advocacy Network, wrote in an e-mail yesterday. “However, clerks said it’s difficult to know whether it’s the rumor mill or the run-up to spring break. It’s a shame that a mere rumor can bring a community to a halt.”

Sorting out truth from fiction is difficult, especially since ICE does not comment on enforcement operations not yet completed. But community leaders say it’s important not to blow the situation out of proportion and worsen the panic. They’re trying to gather facts in order to understand who is actually being targeted by arrest and deportation operations, to get a better sense of who might be next.

ICE says it isn’t targeting or raiding indiscriminately, but is instead focusing its immigration enforcement against “those dangerous criminal aliens who present the greatest risk to the security of our communities,” Lauren Mack, a San Diego ICE spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail.

The ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties has been trying to obtain ICE documents that would help assess that statement. It filed a lawsuit this week asking that ICE turn over information about the backgrounds of the nearly 300 people the agency arrested in California during an enforcement surge in December. More than 70 of those were arrested in San Diego.

The ACLU wants to determine whether there is a discrepancy between who ICE says it is targeting, and who is actually getting picked up.

“One purpose the information could serve is to allow predominantly immigrant communities to understand who may be at risk under the new enforcement paradigm,” said Sean Riordan, the ACLU attorney handling the case.

“If the public has no idea what enforcement is about and what it looks like now, there’s no way for the current immigration debate to be robust and well-informed,” he said.

— ADRIAN FLORIDO

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