The phone calls began pouring in on the afternoon of July 16, one after the other.

They’re in the nurseries. 

Lorena Melgarejo knew what to do. Melgarejo is the executive director of the Bay Area chapter of Faith in Action, a justice-oriented national network of religious institutions that operates San Mateo County’s 24-hour community response hotline. She activated the rapid response network, texting volunteers tasked with investigating rumors of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement presence in the county. 

In less than half an hour, Melgarejo said, multiple rumors of ICE in the Half Moon Bay area had been quashed, thanks to the quick work of the volunteers. Heightened police presence because of a traffic enforcement program and PG&E helicopters appeared to have created concerns within the immigrant community.

Though the rumors didn’t pan out, the calls continued to cascade into Faith in Action’s hotline in the hours to come. Melgarejo said she continued to receive panicked messages the following morning.

“The level of fear that we experienced from the community through the hotline is unprecedented,” Melgarejo said. “I would say it was worse than right after the (2016 presidential) election.”

The Trump administration’s rhetoric about increased enforcement has amplified fear and anxiety among immigrant families. Advocates say immigrants and their families are increasingly reliant on each other, friends and a handful of community leaders as sources of truth, making it more challenging for organizations to circulate updated information and dispel false rumors about immigration enforcement. As rumors spread, they become warped, Melgarejo said, comparing the dissemination to a game of “telephone.”

In the wake of the enforcement scare July 16, Coastside organizations gathered to update protocols for the future. Advocates hope that organizing the Coastside’s trusted messengers around a plan of action will ensure unconfirmed rumors don’t create widespread panic.

Rita Mancera, executive director of Puente de La Costa Sur in Pescadero, hosted a meeting that included nonprofit and governmental organizations last week to share plans for the future. The organizations, which included Coastside Hope, ALAS, and La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District, agreed to exchange contact information so that everyone is in the loop when the protocol is activated.

It is crucial that residents know to call the hotline as soon as possible if they see immigration enforcement, according to Joanne Rokosky of Coastside Immigration Advocacy Group.

“Speed is really important because if (someone gets) picked up, they get processed … really quickly,” she said.

Still, in order to dissuade residents from spreading false rumors, the organizations will circulate slips of paper that ask people to provide accurate information about enforcement to the community hotline, like a specific location and a photo.

“What did you see?” the card reads. “Did you see it yourself or did someone else tell you? Did you see it on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram?”

Melgarejo said that residents are likely to trust and share a loved one’s social media post regardless of its veracity.

“It doesn’t matter how fake it is,” she said. “It moves so fast, that it moves to a couple hundred people before it ever gets to the hotline.”

Mancera called San Mateo County Sheriff’s Capt. Saul Lopez immediately, who told her about the traffic enforcement program that spawned the rumors. But she spent over an hour taking other calls and stamping out unconfirmed rumors. Puente posted on its Facebook page saying it was unable to confirm ICE’s presence at 4:51 p.m., nearly two hours after Mancera’s phone began to ring. She said Puente hopes post to social media faster in the future.

Puente and Faith in Action will also continue to use software that allows them to text people participate in their programming, though Mancera said Puente did not use that system two weeks ago,

“It’s just good for us to have something in place that we follow,” Mancera said. “Then it doesn’t depend on how stressed we are at the moment.” 

This version corrects the title of Lorena Melgarejo.

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