Across the United States, some unauthorized immigrants are keeping their children home from school. Others have suspended after-school visits to the public library. They have given up coffee shop trips and weekend restaurant dinners with family.
Some don’t answer knocks on their doors. They’re taping bedsheets over windows and staying off social media. Nervous parents and their children constantly exchange text messages and phone calls.
From New York to Los Angeles, a series of immigration arrests this week have unleashed waves of fear and uncertainly across immigrant communities.
“There are people that I work with who essentially want to go dark,” said Cesar Vargas, one of the first immigrants without legal status in New York state to be sworn in as a lawyer.
“They don’t want to be public in any way whatsoever. They spend less time on the street. They go to work and go straight back home. They don’t go on Facebook. They put curfews on themselves.”
The fear started to set in after President Donald Trump’s inauguration last month, according to advocates. It heightened after Thursday’s deportation of an undocumented Arizona mother of two who was making a routine visit with immigration officials. And Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents this week carried out numerous actions in California, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Texas and other states.
The arrests come amid court battles over Trump’s proposed ban on immigrants from seven majority-Muslim nations. The president has also vowed to deport some 3 million undocumented immigrants who have criminal records and to build a wall across the porous US-Mexico border.
‘Missing from school out of fear’
That Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said Friday night the United States has not been “rounding anyone up” is of little solace in longtime immigrant enclaves across the nation.
“There are teachers who told me they had students missing from school out of fear,” said Greg Casar, a city council member in Austin, Texas.
“I was with a constituent, a single mother with kids — good, hardworking everyday folks — and she had duct-taped sheets up and down her windows. ICE had come and knocked on her door earlier in the day.”
Casar, the son of Mexican immigrants, spoke on the phone Saturday from a meeting of about 100 teachers who gathered to discuss how talk to children about ICE actions and assure them they’re safe at school.
“Kids … are clearly traumatized by this,” he said. “Young people I’ve spoken to live in fear that their government is coming for them or coming for their parents. Where do you go?”
Criminals are targeted
One ICE operation in the Los Angeles area this week targeted criminals and fugitives. The agency said the majority of those arrested had criminal histories.
ICE said Friday that about 160 foreign nationals were arrested during the week.
Of those, 150 had criminal histories, and of the remaining arrests, five had final orders of removal or were previously deported.
ICE said 95% of those arrested were male. By Saturday, 37 had been deported to Mexico, a Homeland Security official told CNN.
Supporters of the sweeps say they are surprised that actions enforcing US immigration laws are making the news.
“President Trump campaigned on the issue of enforcing the nation’s laws, and that’s exactly what is happening here,” said Dave Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a non-profit that fights for reduced immigration and tighter borders.
John Torres, a retired deputy director of ICE and longtime immigration agent, said the last time such a spike in enforcement occurred was during the Bush administration, from 2006 to 2008.
“What’s different here is that you have a more robust agency than you had 10 years ago,” Torres said. “And the expanded scope of priorities now, coupled with the fact that you have far more jurisdictions that are not cooperating with ICE, is forcing ICE agents to make those arrests out in the community.”
While the Obama administration had clear guidance prioritizing deportation of high-level criminals, an executive order signed by Trump in his first week set up enforcement priorities that could include virtually any undocumented immigrant living in the United States.
‘In major suspense’ with Trump
Many of the largest cities in the country have vowed not to cooperate with federal law enforcement on immigration matters. They are known as “sanctuary” cities, a broad term applied to jurisdictions that have policies limiting cooperation with or involvement in federal immigration enforcement actions.
Cities, counties and some states have a range of laws and informal policies that qualify as “sanctuary” positions.
In New York’s Staten Island, Vargas has been busy since Trump’s inauguration advising members of a growing immigrant community.
Vargas, a Mexican-born lawyer and immigrant activist, has also been busy checking up in his mother, who is also undocumented. And she checks on him.
“My mom tells me, ‘Don’t travel here, don’t travel there,'” said Vargas, who has benefited from federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
“I’m still undocumented. She’s undocumented. I have DACA but she doesn’t. I tell her not to open the door for anyone. Know your rights and give me a call right away.”
Put in place by the Obama administration, the DACA program has helped roughly 750,000 young people — known as DREAMers — emerge from the shadows and obtain valid driver’s licenses, enroll in college and legally secure jobs.
Trump has vowed to repeal the program.
“We’re in major suspense with the Trump administration,” said Vargas, who was 5 he crossed the border from Tijuana to San Diego.
“What is he going to do with DACA? The program can be taken away anytime at the discretion of Immigration. They can say, even if he has DACA, we’re going to pick him up because he is undocumented.”
Concern for veterans
Vargas has been working with undocumented veterans who joined the US military with hopes of getting US citizenship.
Some veterans — green card holders who served in Iraq and Afghanistan — did not go through the entire process of becoming citizens. Many returned to the United States with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Some got hooked on illegal drugs and ended up with felony drug convictions.
They now face deportation.
“Yes, these people have committed crimes, but these are people who the government was supposed to take care of,” Vargas said. “If Donald Trump is so worried about veterans, these are people he should be worried about.”
In Brooklyn, New York, an undocumented immigrant named Antonio — who asked that his full name not be used — said it has been an emotional week for his partner and their two children, ages 3 and 8. His partner cries at the many news reports of separated immigrant families.
“People are not leaving the house to get a cup of coffee, to have dinner or take their children to the library,” said Antonio, who came to the United States from Mexico 17 years ago.
“You don’t know when the next roundup will be. You go to work. You come back home.”
He says he is cautious on the street.
“I’m looking around all the time,” he said. “It’s not only (ICE) but the police as well. What if they stop you and ask you questions?”
A construction worker, Antonio said he has paid taxes for years. He was part of a small army of unauthorized immigrants who toiled in the reconstruction efforts in Queens and Staten Island after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
“We were among the first to respond during that catastrophe,” he said.
“We helped rebuild homes and the owners still seek us out for work. But some people feel we’re taking away (jobs). We take the jobs they don’t want. So it’s, ‘Oh, you helped me rebuild my house but now I don’t need you and you should go back to Mexico.'”