In the age of ICE, new Richmond police Hispanic liaison Kenia Marte Santana attempts to bridge the gap between the department and the city’s Hispanic community.
Kenia Marte Santana stands dressed in a dark, almost black police uniform, with a blue badge featuring lady justice on her left shoulder. She smiles while waiting patiently for those who are running late to the night’s event. It’s Thursday, November 29, 2018, and Santana is preparing to host the Richmond Police Department’s 24th Latino Police Academy graduation ceremony.
On her right, a man dressed in a light grey suit with a blue shirt talks with her. He is Officer Juan Tejeda, Hispanic liaison for Richmond Police Department from 2011 until last October, when Santana took his position. Even though he has hosted the Latino Citizens Academy for many years, his successor is already stealing some of his spotlight.
The room inside Ramsey Memorial United Methodist Church is big, with blue walls and many windows, obscured by pale yellow curtains. The place is lit with white, fluorescent lights. Eight long tables with white tablecloths and grey plastic chairs facing the front fill the place. At the end of the room, two tables covered with white and black tablecloths hold diplomas and medallions.
The academy is led by police officers. They teach citizens about their constitutional rights, dangers of drugs and tobacco, and what it’s like to work in law enforcement. This past November, seven adults graduated, along with four middle school girls, but Tejeda and Santana hope the effect can reach beyond the people in the room.
“My message to you,” Tejeda told the graduates, “is everything that you learned here, to take it to the community — bring it to the community. And more importantly, that you enforce it.”
Tejeda has built trust with this community. As the new Hispanic liaison, Santana wants to continue that work. She immigrated from the Dominican Republic herself in 2010, speaking no English at the time. She understands the importance of having police who can communicate effectively with the growing immigrant community in South Richmond.
However, this may be an upward battle in the age of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, more commonly known as ICE. The changes to immigration laws under the current administration have made it more difficult to seek asylum in the U.S. There are few protections for undocumented persons when they report crimes, and ICE has a presence in Richmond, even if local police deny working directly with them.
Father Jack Podsiadlo oversees the Sacred Heart Center, an organization that offers support and adult education for Richmond’s Latino community. He says his organization doesn’t work with police, “because we are wise.”
“It is more in the last couple of years, under the Trump administration, that we had to pull away,” he said.
Immigrant communities often don’t report to the police for fear of deportation, even if local law enforcement want to help. Many of the families who move to Richmond are undocumented, or have deep-seated distrust of police due to experiences in their home country.
Tejeda worked as the Hispanic liaison for seven years and became a recognizable, trustworthy face for some in South Richmond’s Hispanic community. Santana, age 24, became a police officer two and a half years ago. Patrolman Jesus Deras, her occasional partner, described her as “perfect for the job,” because of her friendly and outgoing personality. However, in the current climate, immigrant fear of law enforcement goes beyond her position.
The Department and the Community
Richmond’s second police precinct covers the city’s most densely populated region for immigrants from Central America, South America, and Mexico. Hull Street cuts through the center of this area, which includes the Southwood Apartments, often referred to as “La Mancha” by locals because of its large Spanish-speaking population.
This is where Tejeda has focused his efforts since working as Richmond Police’s Hispanic liaison. Tejeda organized police department soccer games with community members, ran the Latino Citizens Police Academy, and started the Miss Hispanidad Virginia Pageant. He runs the Hispanic American School for Advancement (HASA) outside of his duties as a police officer. After feeling like he was falling behind, he decided to step down from the liaison position and make way for Santana.
“Between HASA and that position [Hispanic liaison], I had no personal life,” Tejeda said. “HASA takes 80 to 90 percent of my free time.”
Besides just Tejeda’s personal efforts, the department has held more Spanish courses for English speaking officers and has hired more native Spanish speakers. He estimates that ten or fewer officers could speak Spanish a decade ago, but they’ve since nearly doubled that number, though they could still use more.
Deras patrols the second precinct 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. most nights and said he is often the only Spanish-speaking officer on duty for the entire area.
“I have to go all the way to the other side [of the precinct] just to translate something basic,” he said. “And then sometimes we go to a situation that we don’t know what is happening beforehand.”
Even with the language barrier between most officers and Hispanic immigrants, Tejeda believes that he has the trust of the community, and that the relationship is better now than it was just a few years ago. More crimes are reported now, he said, showing a greater willingness to call police to help with problems.
Despite the challenges that still face the Richmond Police Department’s Hispanic liaison, Tejeda feels that Santana is well-suited for the job.
“It’s a big position,” Tejeda said. “It’s a lot of responsibility, but she is a good public speaking person. She has a heart for the community. Her biggest challenge is to have the community trust her the same way that they trust me.”
Challenges for Santana
Earlier last summer, Santana walked into a small apartment with one extra-wide king-size mattress. A family of five lived there together, and the three children, ages 4, 8, and 12, all slept in the same bed as their parents. Santana went to this apartment because she had received a call about domestic abuse and sexual assault from the mother there. Her oldest son told Santana that his father beat him for smoking cigarettes, and that his father was sexually abusing his mother in the bed while they all tried to sleep at night.
Santana was appalled, but there was little she could do for the woman, because she didn’t want to file an official police report. Santana ordered the husband to leave, and said he was “sick,” but he just laughed at her.
“I had to leave because I was way too upset,” she said. “You can’t get a restraining order if you don’t have a report.”
The father was back the next week when she followed up, but there was no way to arrest him without a victim willing to testify against him.
Nonetheless, domestic violence is one of the most difficult crimes for people to report, and happens in all communities, Richmond-based immigration lawyer Alina Kilpatrick said, but it disproportionately affects undocumented immigrants because they are not protected by the law.
“They don’t want someone taken away and never seen again,” said Kilpatrick. “No matter how badly they’re being mistreated, because that person might be the primary breadwinner for the entire family.”
A visa with greater protections for victims may take four or more years to acquire, Kilpatrick said, and would take hiring a lawyer, requiring time and expense that many in that community cannot afford. This issue is also affected by President Donald Trump’s recent policy change to remove domestic violence as a reason to seek asylum, which undermines any message from the police encouraging people to report these types of crimes.
Santana tries to meet as many people in the Hispanic community of South Richmond as she can. She has an iPhone from the department set aside for citizens to call her directly. She has a Facebook page where people frequently message her, and she can answer questions or give advice related to constitutional rights, crime reports, and where to find good English language classes. She says people can recognize her car, displayed on the banner of her Facebook page, which features a purple “Domestic Violence Prevention” ribbon decal on its hood.
Santana believes, “little by little,” she can reach the entire Hispanic community in her precinct through the Latino Citizens Academy.
“Because it’s big families,” she said, and went on to describe two sisters who just graduated that live in a house with seven other family members: children, husbands, and siblings. “So I think in a year or two, it could be possible.”
The community Santana describes is growing quickly, and she’s seen it. At a recent trip to Greene Elementary School to talk to children about police duties and the dangers of tobacco and alcohol, Santana noticed that out of the 74 students, over 50 were Hispanic. She wants to be a role model for those students, focusing mostly on the youth, because, she said, the trust has already been built with Hispanic adults who have lived in Richmond for some time.
She had good mentors herself when she moved to Richmond at age 16. She passed her English as a Second Language exam at Huguenot High School after only three months of learning the language, so she could take classes that would give her credit to graduate on time.
She became a police officer because she wanted to be a mentor and help her community, in the same way that people had pushed her in high school to stay on the right path.
“I thought to myself, ‘Police officers here and social workers are like the same thing, when you think about it,’” she said.
Disconnect within the Community
The Sacred Heart Center is one of the major cultural and educational hubs for the Hispanic community. It provides the Hispanic community with diverse programs related with citizenship tests, literacy, kids programs and English language classes. According to Father Jack, this is the only center that focuses on the Latino community in Richmond.
“We are here to give a voice to the voiceless,” Father Jack said. “To teach them how to speak up for what are their rights and their needs, so they are not just in the shadows, but they are taking a seat in the table where decisions are made.”
Most members of the Hispanic community who he interacts with are undocumented, Father Jack said. That makes them particularly vulnerable, because everything they do is illegal. They can buy a car, but they can’t get a drivers license. Without legal status, they can’t get health insurance. They can’t work without being paid under the table. Many members of the community are being abused at their jobs, because they are afraid of filing a complaint. Hispanic immigrants often carry large amounts of cash with them, because they are afraid that if they put their money in a bank and they get caught, they would lose access to it.
According to Father Jack, one of the greatest fears members of this community have is being deported. Being caught by ICE is the biggest nightmare for most undocumented people. At the Sacred Heart Center, they learn how to protect themselves.
“The first thing you always are taught is that you don’t give out any information,” Father Jack said.
They teach people not to open the door when ICE agents knock unless there is a warrant from the judge. They also tell them not to provide ICE officers with information such as their full name or country of origin, “because they will know that if you are from Mexico, or South America, pretty much, you are undocumented,” Father Jack said.
He describes the relationship between the Sacred Heart Center and the police department as “minimal.” “We have to play that really carefully,” he said. “Because the general impression that people have is that the police department is working with ICE very closely.”
Santana said that Richmond police do not collaborate with ICE, but she admits ICE has access to national databases. When a person is arrested and fingerprinted, that data becomes accessible to the federal government.
“They are working closely with ICE, even when the government says that that is not happening” said Carlos Bernate, an interpreter for immigration lawyers in the city. “I know from the community that some people that were detained, were detained by the police, and then ICE took them.”
Santana explained that when they arrest someone, the sheriff’s dept is the one that contacts ICE, not the Richmond Police Department. “We don’t have direct contact with ICE,” she said.
However, tension between Richmond Police and the Latino community and its advocates has built over the last couple of years under the Trump administration. Because of “the spirit of this time,” Father Jack said, Sacred Heart decided it was better to “pull back.”
“There was a time when we used to collaborate with one of the precincts,” Father Jack said. “They were doing some good things in the community. They understood that they were to keep the neighborhood safe, not to be doing the job of the federal government.”
Now, though, Bernate doesn’t see the same level of understanding from the city’s police force.
“They come to an event and take a picture and that’s it,” he said. “I don’t think that is actually coming to the community, where there is a lot of crime, a lot of ICE raids.”
For Father Jack, the only way a relationship between the Hispanic community and the police department can exist is if the police make it clear that they will not purposefully collaborate with ICE. “And it has to come from the head — the police chief,” he said.
According to Santana, former Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham stated at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2018 that the department does not collaborate with ICE.
“Little by Little”
Back in the big room with blue walls and pale yellow curtains, Rachel de la Cruz has just received her diploma as one of the graduates of the citizens academy. At 13 years old, she has seen many of her family members deported or put in jail. She wants to go to Harvard and become an immigration lawyer, so she can help her community, especially those people who don’t know much English. Santana understands her desire.
“I wanted to be an immigration lawyer in high school,” Santana said. “You see people needing help and you just want to help.”
“I had a lot of experiences in the past with my friends doing bad things,” Rachel said. “My friends would get into drugs and alcohol, and I didn’t want to go that path.”
“I started smoking cigarettes when I was in high school,” Santana said. “Thank God I quit, because I was trying to fit in.”
Joining the academy helped Rachel to understand the police’s perspective. “I have always been scared of the police,” she said. “They’d take family members away, or scare me in general with their weapons.”
However, she felt like she could relate to officer Santana, because she is a Latina. “She is a very kind person and very giving person,” Rachel said. “She doesn’t think of herself as an officer that you have to be scared of. She is just another person, and she is just protecting you.”
Even Santana knows that area police have a long way to go where relationships with Richmond’s Hispanic community. Six months ago, she was driving through Chesterfield when she was stopped by two Chesterfield police officers. In order to prove a theory, she pretended not to speak any English, assuming the police stopped her because of the way she looked.
“Immediately [the officer] was just saying flat out, ‘I’m gonna give her a ticket — she probably doesn’t even have a license,’” Santana said. “Already assuming I didn’t have a license because I was Hispanic.”
“There’s still a wall, but the wall is slowly coming down,” Rachel said. “[The police] were so kind. Even when they were mad at us for being bad, they still cared, and really showed a lot of passion for us to be better people.”
After all the graduates get their diplomas, Santana urges people to ask the photographer for photos with their families, offering to print them out and bring them copies.
Santana believes that it’s this kind of one on one interaction that is going to allow police to connect with the Hispanic community. She believes that she can play an important role in making it happen, one person at a time.
“Little by little,” she said.
Top Photo by Silvia Serrano. Written by Silvia Serrano and Conner Evans.
Silvia Serrano is a writer and journalism student at the University of Richmond from Madrid, Spain. She has a special interest in environmental issues, although she also enjoys writing about social and cultural topics.
Conner Evans is studying English and journalism at University of Richmond. He is also the music director at WDCE 90.1, and he’s a member of the improv team, STC.