by Daniel Zawodny | Oct. 19, 2020
They barely saw the car coming. It was dark, about 11:00pm, the kind of piercing January night that always feels later than it is, no matter the hour. Lucas and his roommate were walking to a party at a friend’s house. They had only made it a block or two from their front door when they heard an engine revving.
“The car pulled up beside us and (the person inside) lowered the window. He just pulled out a gun and started shouting,” said Lucas.
It’s the kind of crime rampant in Honduras that Lucas’ paisanos — countrymen — now flee from in caravans. A kind of crime that convinces teenagers that it’s safer to spend days walking through the open desert that separates Mexico and the United States than continue life in the barrios of San Pedro Sula. It’s the kind of crime that immigrants think they are leaving behind in pursuit of a dream, only to come screeching back into their lives like a nightmare.
Lucas was bleeding. The car sped away, leaving him on the sidewalk in the biting cold. He put his hand over his eye to catch the blood. He had just been shot, but didn’t know why.
In 2016, a time when the “sanctuary city” movement was making traction, then-mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake dubbed Baltimore a “welcoming city” to immigrants. In the last two decades, a new wave of migrants seeking the American Dream arrived both by choice and by chance to the Charm City, coming from predominantly Spanish speaking countries across the Americas. As more and more newcomers arrive, the more latinx individuals have become targets for crime, fueling racial tensions, taxing city resources and preventing immigrant victims from integrating into the fabric of a city that needs them.
The 3900 block of E. Pratt Street, the place where Lucas was shot, lies deep within the lattice of row homes that encompasses Baltimore’s east side Highlandtown neighborhood. It is treeless and pot-holed, a far cry from the rural town of Arenal where Lucas, who has asked his last name be omitted for his safety and concern over his immigration status, grew up. On one corner of the block, an out-of-business storefront has been turned into quick housing. One block down, another defunct corner store — this one painted a harsh, bright yellow — has become an Evangelical church, ‘La Luz del Mundo.’ Just a couple streets away, the Eastern Avenue underpass leads further out into Greektown. As one local insurance agent of Dominican descent put it, “it’s Greektown by way of Mexico.”
Baltimore has always been a sort of “welcoming city.” Germans, Irish, Poles and many more came to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries by way of the Baltimore harbor, making it the largest port of entry into the country between the years of 1830 and 1914, according to statistics from the Baltimore Immigration Museum. Many of these new United Statesians worked factory jobs, and eventually helped make Baltimore the 6th most populous city in the country. The 1950 Census recorded the city’s population at just under one million.
But then the factories started to close, taking jobs out of the city. Housing discrimination was both procedural and personal, both in the form of federal “redlining” policies, racist mandates that denied home loans to African Americans and kept investment out of predominantly black neighborhoods, and by the nefarious phenomenon of “blockbusting.” As the new suburbs of Baltimore County grew, investors bought up city houses in predominantly white neighborhoods and sold them to black families. They would then turn to the white families on the block and warn them that their new black neighbors were hurting property value. Many left for the county, selling their homes for cheaper than their actual worth. In 1940, whites made up just over 80 percent of the total city population. Today, they comprise less than 30 percent. This so-called “white flight” not only changed city demographics, but sucked the town of its tax base as the population total plummeted, leaving many once prominent neighborhoods on a collision course for urban decay.
In March, The Baltimore Sun reported that estimates in advance of the 2020 U.S. Census showed that Baltimore’s population would drop below 600,000 residents for the first time since the early 1900’s. However, the past couple of Censuses show a steady increase in residents of Hispanic origin. Predominantly Mexican, Dominican, and Central American immigrants are breathing new life into East Baltimore and other neighborhoods — starting businesses, buying vacant homes, enrolling their kids in city schools. Many are visa holders, others, asylum seekers or other lawfully present immigrants awaiting their day in court before an immigration judge. Many though do not hold legal status.
Baltimore officials celebrate this new wave of Spanish speaking residents in hopes that they can help move the city forward. However, they run a city where nearly one in five residents lives in poverty, a statistic largely skewed by racial fault lines that were once the color red. Violence has helped wall off the pockets even further. Now, the trenches that poverty has dug in neighborhoods all over town are being rented out cheap to newcomers, one bedroom at a time.
A welcoming city indeed, but as Lucas learned on the 3900 block of E. Pratt Street, a tough place to find sanctuary in.
People trickled in through the back door of the stale church hall on a Saturday morning in early spring. Mostly brown feet passed over the aged tile to a faded blue carpet, stepping into a section of the hall walled off by tall office cubicle dividers. Maps and ESOL, English for speakers of other languages, education binders that hadn’t been put away still crowded the tables. The silence was often interrupted by the innocent laughter of kids reading old books from a basket in the corner and the harsh staccato of police radios crackling in and out.
Officer Raul Rivera and Detective Miguel Rodriguez were smiling in a way that suggested they were reminding themselves to do so. Dressed in their Baltimore Police Department blues, chests puffed by their bulletproof vests and Glock 9mm pistols strapped to their hips, their vestments announced a different kind of sermon.
The crime prevention workshop was attended mostly by Mexicans and Central Americans — natives of countries where it can be hard to trust the police, hard to trust the institutions whose laws the police enforce. While Rivera and Rodriguez, a 1-2 Puerto Rican punch of Baltimore reality, rattle off a litany of ways they can help in a crime situation, those attending might be preoccupied with other thoughts. They might recall stories from their home countries of police working in tandem with or turning a blind eye to criminal gangs. They might recall moments from their country’s history when police and paramilitary forces were agents of terror during brutal civil wars. They might glimpse Rivera’s tattoo-covered arm, his inked hand as it hovers next to his 9mm — in cities like San Salvador and Tegucigalpa, tattoos mean allegiance to delincuencia, to los Maras, MS-13 or others. Rivera and Rodriguez might be mindful of this.
But these two officers consider themselves the good guys. Detective Miguel Rodriguez always wanted to be a cop. He grew up in New York City and San Juan, Puerto Rico in a law and order family — military parents, two cousins that would go on to serve in the NYPD. As a kid, he looked to the badge as a sign of honor, and his brown skin did not stop him from befriending police officers, especially in San Juan. Smiling, he concedes the corniness with which he recalls his uniformed role models, calling it, “love at first sight.”
“Growing up, I saw it as a vehicle to insert myself into being of service to the community. I saw it as an opportunity to be a guy that could make a difference, help victims,” he said.
In 2006, Rodriguez came to Baltimore from San Juan as one of few Spanish speaking officers assigned to the city’s south side. He was soon made detective, and now serves as Hispanic Liaison for the entire Baltimore Police Department, making sure the Hispanic community “gets taken care of.” He’s confident he understands the community — he looks at their faces and sees people that look like him, hard workers who also want to contribute to society, perhaps make enough money to send to families back home. He also knows the other reason why they may be hesitant to talk to him — another fear immigrants often associate with his badge.
Through section 287g of the Immigration and Nationality Act, ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has entered into 141 different MOA’s (Memoranda of Agreement) with state and local police departments in more than 20 states, agreements intended to help the federal government enforce immigration laws. During a July 2019 press conference, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison stated, “our policy emphatically says that we do not cooperate with ICE,” adding, “those policies (MOA’s) hurt our cities and prohibit us from keeping people safe because it pushes people away from telling us about crimes.”
Rodriguez knows this. When he responds to a call and finds a Spanish speaker on the scene, there’s often trepidation in the person’s face when he asks for their ID. “Tranquilo,” he’ll respond — don’t worry. He says a passport is fine, or their cedula — he just needs their name. He hopes that the sing-songy cadence of his Puerto Rican Spanish might put the person at ease.
There is no shortage of these moments. Since 2006, the year Rodriguez came to the force, the Southeast and Southern districts, the two areas of Baltimore with the largest number of latinx residents, come in at numbers two and four respectively for most crime incidents citywide.
“They’re a favorite target of these criminals out on the streets,” said Rodriguez. “They pick these guys because they always carry cash, they break into their homes because they know they’ve got cash stashed under a mattress somewhere.” According to Open Baltimore, the city’s online public database, the most common street crimes — larceny, assault, and burglary — account for around 77 percent of incidents citywide. In the Southeast district, those same crimes encompass just over 88 percent of incidents.
As part of his work as Hispanic Liaison, Rodriguez knows he needs to get out in front of these incidents and get into the community. He goes to libraries, to community organizations, even to dingy church halls where Central Americans take English classes, to offer crime prevention tips. He encourages people to open checking accounts, as he knows the undocumented to be hesitant to give out their personal information to a bank. He encourages them to take the bus and not walk everywhere, as he knows they’ll try to save money by not paying for transportation.
He and Rivera go on and on, inevitably slipping into a sort of PSA tone reminiscent of a “scared straight” talk adolescents might sit through in their high school gym. They speak back and forth, uninterrupted, for over an hour. Eventually they will ask if anyone has any questions. Some in the audience have been victims of street crimes, others haven’t, but they all sit in an uncomfortable silence on their white folding chairs.
Inevitably, two questions are made. One woman asks what many might want to, beating around the bush with pena — shyness — about whether she should be worried about how a person’s immigration status may be affected by all of “this.” As is typical, “this” is not clearly defined, it never is with the immigration question. Opening a bank account, purchasing a home, even talking to a police officer after you’ve been robbed. To someone who isn’t “supposed” to be in this country, any action that requires stepping out of anonymity raises red flags. Luckily, Rodriguez and Rivera have the easy answer for that one.
The next question is trickier. Another person stands and asks what to do about los morenos — African Americans. Eyes move back to the officers and remain there, as if suggesting that they too were wondering the same thing.
Rivera and Rodriguez look at each other. The blue carpet has become eggshells. Everyone shifts in their seats as the police radio cracks the silence, a coded call awaiting a response.
Mere days after Lucas was shot, community members braved a sub-freezing day to hold a prayer vigil in memory of Carmen Rodriguez. Mourners’ gloved hands shook from the cold as they held makeshift signs with the names of the more than 330 people killed in Baltimore in 2019. Rivera and other BPD patrol officers blocked one lane of traffic along E. Fairmount Ave. to make room for the growing crowd and multiple news crews. City Councilman Zeke Cohen, representative for much of the Southeastern district, greeted the crowd in broken Spanish before lamenting the death of another member of their community.
Donna Batkis wore a cumbersome cast on her leg and hobbled into the crowd with the help of her crutches. A recent fall had destroyed her leg, the resulting surgery leaving her weak. But she had to be there, at the corner of E. Fairmount and N. Kenwood. It was the entrance to Kim’s Deli, the store where Carmen Rodriguez worked 16 hour days, seven days a week to provide for her four children before being killed in front of them a month earlier, before becoming the 338th name on a record-setting list of Baltimore homicide victims in 2019. Batkis had to be there, because she too had been a victim of violence.
Batkis understands the latinx immigrant community in Baltimore more than most. She’s been a psychotherapist at Johns Hopkins Hospital for over ten years, and leads a group of Spanish speaking clinicians that make up the hospital’s Hispanic Psychiatry Clinic. The latinx community, a tapestry of cultures that often stigmatize the seeking of mental health services, offers her an intimate window seat view of their traumas, old and new. Many of her clients are asylum seekers who have fled violence and poverty in Mexico and Central America. Some have stories of assault, extortion, or nearly dying in the desert on the way to the U.S. Others of her mostly male clients are victims of traumatic incidents here — robberies, assaults, break-ins.
“They’re hearty people,” said Batkis. “They are people that can make a journey of thousands of miles to come here, but their traumas — the people coming because of violence, that is, they bring those traumas with them.”
But no matter the person, no matter their country of origin, how long they have lived in the United States, or the trauma that they carry, Batkis’ clients share one thing in common — they left precarious places and landed in one of the most violent cities in the U.S.
“There are so many parallels,” said Batkis. “A lot of them are people coming from these poor neighborhoods where people are fighting for the same resources, and there are gangs trying to sell drugs, and then they come to Baltimore, where there are gangs, and drugs, and violence, and they find out that they are not feeling nearly as safe as they thought they would.”
In a pre-pandemic world, once a week Batkis and other members of the Johns Hopkins community facilitated a support group called Testimonios. Attendees share dinner together at Gallery Church, a historic place of worship bordering Patterson Park on Baltimore’s east side, then have the opportunity to share stories and what’s on their mind.
As Batkis explains, it’s normal for the brain to want to group people together, but she and her staff will sometimes have to gently push back against some things they hear. Stories of a robbery in Hampden or Dundalk, historically white working class neighborhoods, can devolve into blanket statements about los americanos — those Americans. A similar story set in South or East Baltimore will elicit similar talk about los morenos — those black people.
But the fear is as real as the prejudice. It makes some of Batkis’ clients not want to leave the house. For others, it causes visceral reactions when they see a person with the same skin tone as their attacker.
The trauma from Lucas’ attack has been cumbersome. He’s at times wrestled thoughts of suicide because of how difficult life has become — he’s lost work, accrued debt, and more fearful of crime than ever. But he’s gotten help. With eyes fixed on the floor, he says that he’s been able to see a psychologist; that poco a poco — little by little — he’s moving forward.
That’s why Batkis does programs like Testimonios and Unidos y Seguros, a Johns Hopkins-funded series of interventions with the latinx community that, poco a poco — little by little — chips away at the stigma of seeking mental health services, educates people about trauma and promotes violence reduction strategies.
Darkness fell at the corner of E. Fairmount and N. Kenwood, and the shivering of the crowd became more pronounced. The first phase of the vigil ended — some conceded to the cold and made for home, others lined up on the sidewalk following marching orders of the vigil organizers for the two mile walk to city hall.
Batkis could have just gone home, put her foot up, and let the weight of her cast carry her into sleep. Instead, she sat in a wheelchair and had a friend push her through the cold January night.
Like so many immigrants before him, Lucas came to the United States in search of opportunity. Since 2006, he has laid low and lived a normal life in between construction jobs, building the homes, offices and infrastructure of a society that does not recognize him as lawfully a part of it. He put his children through college in Honduras with the remittances he sent back. His marriage to a woman he hasn’t seen in 14 years has dissolved, not through a dramatic falling out or painful divorce, but rather through the mutual acceptance that time simply imposed it.
He has considered returning to Honduras, but like for many immigrants, each year away makes it harder to go back. “Life here, it just kind of traps you,” he said.
Lucas was unlucky on that cold January night in all ways but one. As the police report indicates, the perpetrator’s weapon was a bb gun.
Lucas was rushed to the hospital after the incident and soon went into surgery to remove the bbs lodged in his head. The surgeons could only get one on the first go. Lucas recovered from the surgery in time, but can still barely see out of his right eye. Like most undocumented persons, he is uninsured, and now stuck with around $40,000 in bills from Johns Hopkins Hospital. The second bb protrudes from the skin around his right temple, a tiny bullet doctors say they can now remove. Lucas says the hospital won’t schedule him for surgery until his account is paid.
Some days, friends call Lucas to bring him along to job sites to help him stay afloat. He lost his job while recovering from surgery, and now work is harder to find than ever. He’s trying, little by little, to pay debts placed upon him by a hemisphere. The night of the attack, Lucas swears that he had about $200 cash in his pocket. He claims that after being discharged from the hospital and being handed his things, the money was gone. He thinks the only logical explanation is that someone in the ambulance must have stolen it.
A social worker from a local non-profit organization has been helping Lucas get some affairs straight. They’ve applied to have the hospital bills covered by the Maryland Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, a state program that offers monetary support to victims of crime across Maryland’s 24 different counties. In fiscal year 2019, more than half of claims filed to the board came from Baltimore City.
A local immigration attorney informed Lucas that based on the crime, he might qualify for a U visa, lawful status granted to undocumented immigrant crime victims on condition of full cooperation with authorities in solving the crime. However, Lucas hasn’t been able to get his case taken up with one of the area pro-bono immigration legal clinics. He would have to hire a private attorney, and then just wait — the current average processing time for U visa applications with United States Immigration and Customs Services is around five years.