Morning traffic streamed past a busy intersection in South Seattle, past a family-style pizza shop and a brightly-painted Mexican restaurant that still wouldn't open for several hours. A few residents came and went from the low-rise apartments lining the blocks in this largely Latino neighborhood.
A young man named Jose, who grew up in this neighborhood, showed me one of the buildings he manages – and where he recently stood up to federal immigration agents, with support from a local hotline that fielded his urgent call for help.
“I was standing here, and this is where they came down,” Jose said, pointing toward the back entrance of his building. Jose asked to only use his first name, to protect his identity.
On the morning of November 16, Jose came rushing to these apartments after he got a call from an agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“He told me that he was here, he was trying to apprehend a suspect,” Jose recalled. “I was like, OK, I'm on my way. I'm the property manager. I'll be there shortly. And he asked me how soon, because we have six agents who are ready to enter the premises.”
But Jose didn’t see any officers when he arrived, so he waited by the back entrance.
Moments later, a few agents stepped out of unmarked vehicles.
“Yeah, they basically had the whole place surrounded,” Jose said, pointing out where agents’ cars were sitting in the parking lot and on the street.
Jose said he shook hands with the lead agent, then asked him for a warrant to enter and search the building. The ICE agent handed Jose some papers.
“And I was just scanning for the word judge,” Jose said. “I was making sure that it came from a court and was actually signed by a judge.”
Immigration agents often use what’s called an administrative warrant, but only a judge’s signature gives them legal permission to search private property.
Jose knew what to look for, and he handed the papers back.
“I'm sorry,” he told the agents. “In order for me to let you enter the premises, I need to see a warrant signed by a judge."
After some back and forth, the agents returned to their cars.
Jose said they left him with this warning: “We're just going to stay out here all day, and we're going to pick up anybody that comes in or leaves the property."
Jose waited. He knew help was on the way.
On that November morning when the ICE agent called Jose, he hung up the phone nervous and shaken.
But his first thought was clear: “Call the hotline.”
“As soon as I hopped in my car, I just pulled up the website and called the 1-844 number,” Jose said.
“Hello, you’ve reached the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network ICE reporting hotline,” came the recorded message on the other end.
That call to the hotline started a chain reaction.
“I was actually on my way to work, but then I got the address and went right to the scene,” said Victoria Mena, policy director with Colectiva Legal del Pueblo. The nonprofit provides immigration legal services throughout Washington.
Mena is also a volunteer with the Washington Immigrant and Solidarity Network (WAISN), a coalition of organizations and volunteers that formed just weeks after Donald Trump’s election.
Last spring, the group launched a statewide hotline for people to report ICE activity, as well as a text message alert system to sound the alarm when necessary. Roughly 500 people now subscribe to these alerts.
When Jose called the hotline that morning, the network’s rapid response team sprang into action.
“We ended up having three attorneys there, community members there, and other organizations present,” Mena said. “So this is a clear example of how this network can really work.”
When Mena arrived at Jose’s building, she took photos of the unmarked vehicles. Within minutes, the agents left.
ICE officials have said all arrests are targeted, with priority to apprehend serious criminals.
Mena said the network’s goal are not to interfere with law enforcement, but rather “to hold them [ICE] accountable that they have to do the right thing.”
“We are not standing in their way of doing their job,” Mena said.
Immigration officials declined to comment on the specific incident at Jose’s building.
But in an email statement, ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley said individuals who impede officers “recklessly endanger not only the enforcement personnel, but also the individuals targeted for arrest and potentially innocent bystanders.”
Haley also noted that individuals arrested by ICE “receive all due process afforded to them under the law.”
The hotline gets about a dozen calls a week, according to Mena. Many are rumors of ICE activity, which network volunteers will investigate and report back to the community.
WAISN is also conducting volunteer trainings across the state to build up the rapid response teams in towns and neighborhoods where undocumented immigrants live, so they can respond to local incidents.
Mena describes this on-the-ground network as part of wider efforts to protect immigrants at risk of deportation, and a way to give concrete meaning to the label of a ‘sanctuary’ city or policy.
Nearly a week after the ICE visit, Jose still gets a bit rattled thinking back to that encounter with the agents.
“Honestly, as they were walking towards me, I thought, this is it,” Jose said. “This is where I'm going to get picked up and then taken to a country that I really don't know.”
Jose is undocumented. He said it "rocked him to his core" to come face to face with immigration officials.
Currently, Jose has temporary permission to stay and work in the U.S. through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. It’s a federal program that prevents deportation for roughly 700,000 immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children, including about 18,000 in Washington. The program is set to be phased out in March, although Congress is considering several potential bills to replace it.
After President Trump’s election, Jose started attending "know your rights" trainings, where he learned what do if ICE ever stopped him. That's also where he heard about the hotline.
It was a game changer for him.
Jose said he probably would not have confronted the ICE agents if not for the hotline.
“Being in my situation with DACA, I probably would have just not have put myself in that situation," Jose said. "But knowing that I had that network behind me, knowing that I had organizations here in the community that I can rely on gave me more confidence.”
On that chilly November morning, as Jose and I talked in the parking lot of his building, a white SUV leisurely rolled by and came to a near stop across the street.
Blue lettering and a logo on the side clearly marked it as Homeland Security. Then the white SUV drove on, down the neighborhood street where Jose rode his bike as a kid.
The Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network ICE reporting hotline can be reached at 1-844-RAID-REP (1-844-724-3737).