When ICE Tried to Arrest an Undocumented Man in Tennessee, Neighbors and a Network of Volunteers Formed a Human Chain to Protect Him

Jasmine Aguilera

Residents in a suburban Nashville neighborhood came together to protect an undocumented man as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers attempted to arrest him Monday morning.

After a four-hour attempted arrest — during which time the undocumented man and his young son barricaded themselves inside a van parked in front of their home — ICE agents left, and neighbors and activists on the scene created a human chain to allow the family to get indoors.

“At that point it was being extra cautious and letting the family know, look, we got your back, we’re between you and the unknown, and here’s a safe pathway back to your front door,” Tristan Call, a volunteer at Movements Including X (MIX), a collective of young activists who organize for social causes, tells TIME. Call was a part of the human chain.

By the time the attempted arrest was over, dozens of people had showed up to support the undocumented man, including two city councilmen from Nashville. The volunteers showed up as part of a network called ICE Rapid Response to protect undocumented immigrants, just one example of communities throughout the country who have responded to increasing threats of ICE arrests.

“All of us were volunteers today,” Call says. “It wasn’t like a big nonprofit, or like a big law firm or something like that. This is something any group of people can do.”

What exactly happened on Monday?

At 7:19 a.m. in the working class neighborhood of Hermitage in Nashville, the Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) received a call from ICE requesting assistance, MNPD Public Affairs Manager Don Aaron tells TIME in a statement.

According to MNPD, ICE attempted to pull over a man in a white van on Monday morning. The man was not identified, and MNPD says he did not pull over, he instead pulled into a driveway and refused to get out. He was with his 12-year-old son.

“When the police arrived, they learned that ICE was attempting to serve a detainer only on the individual,” Aaron said. “The officers were instructed to not be involved in the service of the detainer, but to stand by from a distance to keep the peace if necessary. ICE ultimately left while the man was still in the van. The police left accordingly.”

Call, who live streamed about an hour of the attempted arrest, a video that now has over 101,000 views, says neighbors witnessing the attempted arrest sounded the first alarm, reaching out to local activist groups, who then informed their networks. The neighbors worked together to make sure the family had water, and filled up the car’s gas tank to ensure the father and son had air conditioning, according to The Tennessean.

“A few years ago after the Trump election, a few hundred people indicated their interest in helping out like this, so we made a database for phones to ring and it got activated today,” Call says, adding that it was all coordinated with text messages and Facebook. He showed up at the attempted arrest when he was notified, and several other activists arrived, along with Nashville At Large Councilmen Bob Mendes. Later towards the end of the attempted arrest, Nashville City Councilman Fabian Bedne arrived.

The two ICE officers involved in the attempted arrest were not in uniform and were driving an unmarked vehicle, a large white truck. Some neighbors told The Tennessean that they had noticed the truck passing through the neighborhood for the past two weeks, but didn’t know it was driven by ICE officers.

“I would have never ever guessed that the people in those cars were government agents,” Bedne tells TIME. “They looked like your neighbors, anybody. That makes me uncomfortable. I mean if I was driving and one of them tried to stop me, I wouldn’t stop. From a policy perspective, from a safety perspective, it seems extremely inappropriate and dangerous.”

Neighbors on the scene told The Tennessean that the ICE officers were trying to coerce the family out of the vehicle by offering cash rewards and saying “you’ll have to exit eventually.”

Bryan Cox, ICE Southern Region Communications Director, tells TIME in a statement that ICE is a “non-uniformed agency” but that all ICE officers wear identifying badges and carry credentials.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportation officers were seeking a convicted criminal alien ICE fugitive with an outstanding removal order in metro Nashville July 22 when they were encountered by a small group of protestors,” Cox said. “Out of an abundance of caution for the safety of all persons involved, ICE personnel subsequently made the decision to depart without making an arrest to deescalate the situation.”

Cox said that ICE continues to focus its attention on criminal offenders, “as nearly 90% of persons arrested for violation of federal immigration law during the past year also had either a prior criminal conviction or a pending criminal charge. ICE does not conduct any type of random or indiscriminate enforcement that would encounter persons indiscriminately.”

Cox added that it is a crime to impede or obstruct a federal officer who is engaging in official duties.

In Call’s live stream, he asks an MNPD officer on the scene who is identified as Sgt. Noah Smith by The Tennessean, if the undocumented man in the vehicle had a criminal record. The officer said the man had no warrants on file in Davidson County, Tenn., and was not a target for MNPD.

After four hours, with more people showing up including local media, the ICE officers decided to leave, and MNPD left as well. That’s when several of the neighbors and volunteers decided to form a human chain around the car and help the man and son into their home.

“Really the difference was the neighbors stood with it,” Call says. “None of this would have happened if 15 neighbors hadn’t come out to support [the family] immediately.”

The ICE Rapid Response network

In an effort to support their neighbors, MIX formed a spreadsheet called ICE Rapid Response to keep track of over 100 volunteers willing to intervene during an ICE arrest, one of the MIX cofounders, Cindy, tells TIME. She asked to be referred to by only her first name to help maintain her privacy.

The spreadsheet was formed after President Donald Trump first announced plans on June 17 to deport “millions” of undocumented people in ICE raids across the country the following week. The list is organized by zip code, Cindy says, allowing for certain people to be notified if an ICE arrest is happening near them.

The idea for the ICE Rapid Response modeled similar spreadsheets in other cities and by other organizations, Cindy says.

So far, MIX has only had to utilize the list about three times, she says, sometimes in response to false alarms.

“At first it was pretty scary,” Cindy says. “But it was amazing how the work of the network and just community itself, and how neighbors help each other and stick together to help this person with his son — it was really exciting but sad, but a very sweet moment.”

What happens now?

Call says the family was taken to an undisclosed location with a local advocacy organization as they plan out what to do next.

“People need to prepare themselves for this kind of thing all over the place,” he says. “The family has some decisions to make. Luckily we have a strong support network of lawyers and churches and synagogues and mosques, and different people here in Nashville where there’s support… So I think they have to figure out what they’re gonna do and they have the backing of thousands of people around the city that have been organizing to be available in moments like this.”

The attempted arrest took place about a week before a mayoral and city council election will take place in Nashville on Aug. 1.

“Hopefully this will help people running for office to understand that they need to take a stand about protecting our neighbors,” Bedne says.

“Nashville is a welcoming city,” Bedne adds. “We care about our neighbors.”