New Yorkers were sharing a bracing message on Facebook on Thursday: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents had set up checkpoints at subway stations in the Bronx and were demanding that people show their papers. “Anybody without documents,” the message instructed, should avoid the 6 train. Two stops in particular—the one at 149th and 3rd Ave and the one at 149th and Southern Boulevard—were singled out as especially high-risk.
There were two problems with this warning. The first was that there was no ICE checkpoint at the 6 train station at 149th and Southern Boulevard on Thursday afternoon. According to an MTA attendant manning the help desk at the station around 4 p.m., there hadn’t been one at any time this week, or ever. The second problem with the warning was that the 6 train does not stop at 149th and 3rd Ave.
Neither issue stopped well-meaning Facebook users from sharing the post, which came punctuated with a plea for all who read it to spread it further by copying and pasting the message. As of this writing, people are still posting it every few minutes, and there is no sign of its viral momentum slowing down.
The fact that there are no ICE agents in the Bronx demanding people’s papers is a good thing. The fact that undocumented immigrants are living in acute fear of deportation as a result of these Facebook posts is not. As legitimate concerns about a Trump-enabled immigration crackdown have taken root, so has unconfirmed alarmism about specific, nonexistent checkpoints. On Friday morning, a quick search on Facebook showed posts similar to the one about the 6 line having popped up in Chicago (“They're checking IDs on the red line”); Richmond, Virginia (“From trusted source—ICE (immigrations) checkpoint is at Richmond Costco right now”); and Los Angeles (“ICE Checkpoint on Van Nuys Blvd. and Oxnard St.”).
Identifying the origins of such viral rumors is almost as difficult as stopping them from spreading. In some cases, people might see law enforcement agents at work and jump to the conclusion that they are from ICE. Reports of ICE raids in Sacramento, California, that began circulating on Feb. 1 might have originated with a joint FBI-DHS operation involving a bomb threat that “had nothing to do with anything related to immigration," according to a spokesman for the West Sacramento Police Department. In other cases, these “checkpoints” might be scams perpetrated by criminals. According to a spokeswoman for the New York Attorney General’s Office, a Latino immigrant in Queens was recently approached by “four men dressed as ICE agents who told him they would detain him unless he gave them all of his money.”
The fake-checkpoint phenomenon has forced immigration activists to spend their time debunking rumors. The Verge recently spoke to a representative of the New York Immigration Coalition who had been tracking a report of ICE agents in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. “The Flatbush one won’t die,” Camille Mackler said, after visiting the location. “I can assure you there was no checkpoint.” An immigration advocate in Queens, meanwhile, told CBS2 that the rumors have made people “afraid to leave their homes,” even to go to work. “A lot of people are putting up reports about suspected ICE raids online and they just proliferate and spread like wildfire,” Fahd Ahmed told the station.
There is good reason to be worried that, under the new administration, undocumented immigrants in America’s cities will be targeted for deportation. Trump has all but promised it. But passing on rumors does not help anyone, while making immigrants feel needlessly unwelcome and under threat. Bottom line: Unless you see an ICE checkpoint with your own eyes, don’t share these posts on Facebook. Immigrants have enough to fear.