A young mom with a stroller took a seat in front as about 50 people filled the pews at a church in Bellevue on a Thursday morning.
Many are immigrant advocates, and they came to talk with Melissa Nitsch, a community relations officer with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“So a little bit about me, I’m a Northwest native as well,” Nitsch started out, standing at the front of the sanctuary.
In many neighborhoods, the mere mention of ICE can send people into a panic. Nitsch's job is to work with these communities to try to build trust and understanding.
It's a new effort the federal agency launched last year, and Nitsch is one of roughly two dozen liaisons across the country. The goal is to build support for ICE at the local level with police, community groups and the public. Local groups still aren’t quite sure what to make of it.
“It’s definitely an uphill battle, but I get to come to things like this and talk to people,” Nitsch told the audience.
Nitsch gave a quick overview of her work, delicately sidestepping politics.
“Of course we all know that we had an election and we had a new president that came in with a lot of new ideas from the previous administration,” Nitsch said.
As policies change, she wants community members to see her as a source of reliable information. For instance, when rumors fly around about immigration raids, she encouraged people at this meeting to contact her. She can check on it.
“We don’t go out and conduct raids,” Nitsch explained. “We’re not doing checkpoints. When we go out to look for someone, we know who we’re looking for.”
All eyes were on Nitsch, quietly taking this in.
Why should we trust you?
Most people in the pews work directly with undocumented families as city employees, lawyers, school staff and social workers. Some are immigrants themselves.
Nitsch knows this audience likely views her outreach efforts with skepticism. Later, the mom up front called it out.
“I’m sorry this is going to come out sounding really blunt and I’m not trying to be mean, but I know a lot of us are thinking it,” said the woman, who later gave her first name only as Alisha, because her husband is undocumented.
Alisha talked about the ramped of level of fear and mistrust in immigrant communities, eventually asking Nitsch, “Why should we trust you?”
“What can I say to convince you? I don’t know. I’m coming to you knowing that most people here probably don’t like what my agency is doing. But I’m still willing to talk about it and answer all your questions,” Nitsch offered.
Tension hung in the air. Nitsch appeared a bit nervous. But the meeting continued along politely, as Nitsch fielded questions for more than an hour, struggling at times to be candid yet also careful with her words. Her job marks a notable shift for ICE, an agency known for staying on script.
A tense but worthwhile conversation
Afterward, as people left the church, most said they appreciated the chance to talk directly with an ICE representative.
“Yeah yeah, I mean it fights this notion of a bunch of thugs,” said Mercer Island resident Phil Gerson, who’s part of a separate church group that helps undocumented immigrants.
“I think the speaker did as good a job as she can but my questions have to do with moral issues,” Gerson said, explaining that he’d like to see ICE set clearer priorities about who’s targeted for deportation. “Felons not families,” as some say.
One of President Trump’s executive orders removed restrictions on ICE enforcement. Individuals they previously treated as off limits, like non-criminals, are now subject to arrest.
And it’s these undocumented folks who are clearly absent at today’s meeting with ICE.
Debbie Lacy, one of the meeting organizers with the Eastside Immigrant and Refugee Coalition, said that’s no surprise.
“People are so frightened that they’re not going to put themselves at risk by actually showing up where they know an ICE person will be,” Lacy said.
Lacy views this meeting with ICE as a chance to get answers for the immigrants who increasingly turn to them for help. She’s hopeful this dialog with ICE can continue.
“We really wanted to set this up as a safe space for all parties and a place where we could just ask questions and get answers so that we can advocate and push for people’s civil rights at this time,” Lacy said.
It’s a start. And Lacy sees it as worthwhile. As for trust? That will be tricky, between a group that wants to protect immigrants and an agency built up to deport them.