An estimated 183,000 undocumented immigrants live in Chicago, including activist Elvira Arellano, rear, who has been threatened with deportation. Her son Saul is a U.S. citizen. Credit: AP Photo/Julio Cortez

On a cloudy Saturday earlier this month, a group of about 30 people spent the afternoon gathered in the basement of Christ Lutheran Church in Albany Park. This group, a mix of undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens who live in the area, were there for a workshop aimed at educating the neighborhood on what to do if federal immigration agents show up and start knocking on people’s doors.

Fear of immigration raids by federal agents has increased since Donald Trump’s election. As a response, Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD), a group led by undocumented immigrants, has mobilized to start neighborhood-level defense networks aimed at protecting Chicago’s undocumented residents.

These networks function like neighborhood watch programs—only instead of organizing to discourage crime in a community, their goal is to get undocumented and U.S. citizen residents working together to hold immigration officials accountable. Such networks might ask neighbors born in the U.S. to approach ICE agents entering their community to ask why they’re there, for example, or to record ICE’s interactions with neighbors on a cell phone.

“We really need to start thinking locally and within neighborhoods, so that a neighborhood block can organize and know what kind of response it will have if the police or immigration agents come to an apartment building or to a house,” says Antonio Gutierrez, an undocumented immigrant from Guadalajara, Mexico. He works as a program administrator at Community Activism Law Alliance (CALA) and as a family liaison at OCAD. “We understand that whenever there are immigration raids, people may feel intimidated if they don’t know how to respond.”

An estimated 511,000 undocumented immigrants lived in Illinois as of 2014, according to a report commissioned by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Of these an estimated 183,000 live in Chicago. The southwest-side Little Village neighborhood, which has had a substantial Mexican population since the 1970s, is home to about 20,000 undocumented immigrants. But recent waves of immigration “have created large undocumented populations in Belmont Cragin, Gage Park, Albany Park, and Brighton Park,” according to the report. Belmont Cragin has about 12,000 undocumented immigrants, while Albany Park has about 10,000.

Although Chicago is a “sanctuary city”—one that forbids its employees from communicating a person’s immigration status with federal agents under most circumstances—ICE can still conduct raids in the city at will. On Monday ICE agents shot a 53-year-old Belmont Cragin man during an early morning raid.

On January 24 community members gathered at the Little Village Arch on 26th Street to launch La Villita Se Defiende, or Little Village Defends Itself. A similar network was recently convened in Rogers Park. And during the recent Albany Park gathering, residents began taking steps to set up a similar network there.

Since launching this initiative, OCAD says none of its networks has yet been activated to address ICE raids. Right now its focus is on developing community infrastructure: setting up phone trees and educating people on what they can legally do to make sure ICE agents act ethically and legally and are held accountable if they don’t.

“Whenever people are watching,” Gutierrez says, “immigration and police are much more cautious about their actions. So we want to make sure that our communities are well aware of their rights and how they can protect one another.”

“I came to this [workshop] because I want to prepare myself for whatever is going to happen,” said a 45-year-old undocumented woman in Spanish, who spoke on the condition that her name not be published. “We’ve always lived with uncertainty,” she explained, due to her immigration status, but since the election of Donald Trump, “everything is so much more uncertain.”

“I’m afraid to go out on the street because I may get stopped and asked for identification,” she says. “That’s a constant fear for me. I lose sleep. I just don’t know what to do about it.”

Gutierrez suggests that people who want to start an immigration defense network at their neighborhood—or even their workplace—start small, by having conversations with their neighbors. Then, he recommends finding an immigrants’ rights organization to provide workshops.

“Anyone that is part of that community should be part of the conversation: schools, teachers, neighbors, businesses, aldermen, and city officials,” Gutierrez says.

People interested in learning more about the Albany Park defense network can attend an informational event at 2 PM on April 9 at Christ Lutheran Church, 3253 W. Wilson.