My friend and I have been holding our breaths since Sunday.
That day, Danelo Cavalcante – a man convicted of murder who escaped from Chester county prison on 31 August – drove a stolen van into our neighborhood, ditched it behind a church, and was reportedly hiding out here. Suddenly the pretty but unassuming Pennsylvania places we call home – Glenmoore, East Nantmeal, South Coventry – were teeming with law enforcement teams, helicopters and news crews.
But that’s not why we were holding our breaths.
The hyperlocal social media groups my friend and I usually go to for neighborly recommendations for local plumbers and doctors are filled with chatter about police activity, road closures and unofficial (mostly imagined) sightings of Cavalcante. Still, I am a Latina whose family moved to Glenmoore from Guatemala nearly 50 years ago and who has long written both fiction and non-fiction focused on immigrants, so what has really caught my breath is the growing number of posts from my neighbors that express deep anti-immigrant sentiment.
My neighbors’ posts about Cavalcante (who is Brazilian and whose sister has been arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and faces deportation) cite him as proof of the need for a US border wall and for giving Ice freer rein to do as it will. They even stoke up fear that he is a member of MS-13.
You will recognize the throughline from these comments and former president Donald Trump’s frequent talking points about immigrants and Latino immigration from Mexico, Central America and all points south.
Chester county, like other counties proximate to Philadelphia, voted Democratic during the past election. But this area was long a Republican bastion, and while Pennsylvania has seen a 43% increase in Latino populations in the past decade, Glenmoore, East Nantmeal and South Coventry remain majority white. Some of the sense of rural, white grievance that fueled Trump’s popularity lingers here – a farmer up the road from me flies a “Let’s Go Brandon” flag – and even when it doesn’t, people are wary of anyone perceived as “other”.
My first thought when I heard Cavalcante was “loose” in our neighborhoods was that until he was found no brown person walking down our roads would be safe from suspicion. When, yesterday, a young Latina ran away from a behavioral health center here, I worried that with a slight build similar to Cavalcante’s and a similar skin tone, she might be confused for him and be particularly unsafe given the number of amateurs that have decided to search for him.
Of course, the paranoia doesn’t seem limited to my exburban neighbors; the prolonged manhunt for Cavalcante has led people from far more diverse environs to indulge in othering as well. I lost count of the Philadelphia newscasts that characterized Cavalcante as adept at survival in the jungle simply because he is from Brazil. And at one of the first Pennsylvania state police (PSP) press conferences reporters wanted to know if Cavalcante has any cartel or gang affiliations. (None, as far as the PSP knows.)
To me it is all part and parcel of eroded public support for immigrants, irrespective of their immigration status. Politicians (mostly, but not exclusively, Republican) have weaponized the idea that the US is being invaded by immigrants, and stoked the idea that every immigrant is a threat. But the truth has always been far more complex than the rhetoric intended to divide us. Some immigrants – like Cavalcante, who was convicted of stabbing to death his ex-girlfriend and has been implicated in an earlier killing in Brazil – may have earned such a determination, but the vast majority of immigrants in the US do not.
More or less like my neighbors. Some are anti-immigrant, most are not, I think as I prepare to dive into the hyperlocal social group conversations once more, now that word is that Cavalcante has been captured, alive.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/sep/13/danelo-cavalcante-manhunt-pennsylvania-migrants The Cavalcante manhunt stirred up unsettling ideas about dangerous migrants | Sabrina Vourvoulias