By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO—If a day arrives when she does not come home, Lucia has drilled all four of her children to find her black binder and pick up the phone.
“Where is the black binder?” she asks them nearly every day. “Who do you call if I don’t come home?”
Lucia, who spoke on the condition that her surname not be used, has been in the U.S. for 16 years without legal status. The San Diego resident is concerned that being identified as undocumented could lead to her deportation.
Lucia’s black binder contains documents that will enable a close family friend to have custody of her two youngest children, who are U.S. citizens, in the event that she is deported.
The binder is emblematic of preparing for the worst, and Lucia, a single mother of four, is not alone in making these preparations. Mixed-immigration status families here are feverishly planning in the event that they are divided by deportations. The most common of many scenarios is that undocumented parents, like Lucia, could be deported, leaving their children who are U.S. citizens behind.
Since the election of President Donald Trump, the fear level in immigrant communities such as this one has been palpable. Area schools and churches have formed a coalition with the American Civil Liberties Union, Alliance San Diego and the International Rescue Committee to take on the grim task of preparing families for potential separations.
Trump has said he wants to tighten immigration enforcement and has signed an executive order expanding the criteria for deportation to include most people in the country illegally, not just those with criminal backgrounds. Though deportation numbers have been high for the past 10 years, according to federal statistics, recent data show that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has already arrested more immigrants nationwide in 2017 than in the previous year.
Locally, about 2,000 former students of San Diego Unified School District have enrolled in schools in the Mexican state of Baja California since January, presumably because their families have moved across the border, according to the district.
Prayers and preparations
Neal Wilkinson, an assistant pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the Barrio Logan neighborhood of San Diego, has been holding prayer services and planning meetings to help families prepare for the difficult decisions that come from sudden deportations.
“It’s a scary time — we have absolutely huge numbers of undocumented parishioners,” he said. “I’ve never seen anyone cry so hard as our youth did on election night.”
The fears are, for the most part, reality-based. In nearby Escondido, immigration authorities arrested a woman after she parked her car in front of a home where the U.S. Border Patrol was conducting a raid. The federal agents determined she was undocumented and she was deported soon after, leaving her 18-year-old twin daughters behind. A month later, in March, an area grandmother who helped her daughter while her son-in-law serves in Afghanistan was detained for deportation.
“There’s not much we can do to make it safe for families, but we do our best to support people during this assault on Catholic sacrament,” Wilkinson said. He believes that the Catholic faith directs people to “defend human rights” and that families shouldn’t be divided by immigration authorities.
The area schools and churches that hold deportation prep meetings are handing out documents such as those in Lucia’s binders. In addition to custody forms, Lucia’s binder includes power-of-attorney papers, bank statements, the lease for her apartment, plans for how her family can contact her if she is deported and citizenship documents for her children,
The coalition’s organizers started the morning after the election and have held dozens of gatherings to counsel families of mixed nationalities. The San Diego Unified School District has held 16 such meetings at local schools and has a dozen more planned. The Barrio Logan church, meanwhile, has held six meetings. Across the city, such meetings have been held two or three times a week for the past several months, organizers said.
“We will continue to support our kids and their families for as long as it takes,” school district Superintendent Cindy Martens said at a press conference.
Vanessa Cecena has participated in a dozen of the meetings. Cecena is a social worker from the American Bar Association’s Immigrant Justice Program, part of the coalition.
“We go over all the legal relief available,” she said. “At the end of the program we go over emergency planning.”
The ACLU leads a know-your-rights discussion of what can and should happen to the person targeted, how to get a hearing and an attorney and how to avoid signing anything while in custody.
Immigration attorneys also help undocumented residents search for a way to attain legal status. There are exemptions in the law for victims of torture, domestic violence and for religious persecution, for example.
Immigration lawyer Esther Valdes has been attending such events and bringing a notary with her so people can have legal documents complete when they leave the meetings.
‘It’s too risky’
Many people who came to the U.S. as children and did not become citizens have enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA status allows for nearly a half million young people to remain in the U.S. with the right to work or attend college; it has been renewable at two year intervals. Trump has threatened to dismantle the program, and it’s unclear whether those in the program will keep their protected immigration status.
California has the largest DACA population in the U.S., with about 403,000 people who have been accepted into the program, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Data also show that the number of new applicants in the first quarter of 2017 has dropped to record lows, as have renewals.
“We stopped filing new DACA applications because we think it’s too risky and exposes people who are not on ICE’s (Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s) radar now,” Cecena said. “People who are already enrolled, we make sure that their status hasn’t expired and we keep them current.”
Families face difficult questions
The coalition has also been helping families think through questions that a sudden separation would bring up.
“Do you want to leave your children here with relatives or a trusted family friend, or do you want to be reunited in Mexico?” Cecena asks families. “Who can sell your car or enter your apartment? Who can have your power of attorney to make financial decisions?”
Many of the meetings are held in churches, which are recognized as sanctuaries from immigration authorities.
“At first, we saw hundreds of people coming to these public meetings,” Cecena said. “But the numbers started to drop off and we heard it was because families were afraid they would be identified and taken for deportation. So we are holding most of these in churches now.”
Should she be deported, Lucia’s plan, outlined in her binder, is for close friends to take in her children — at least until the end of the school year. Her younger children, ages 9 and 11, would be reunited with their mother in Mexico at the end of their school year.
“I want my children to stay in school until the end of the semester at least,” Lucia said, speaking in Spanish. “Their education is very important because it is the basis for their future.”
Without the documents in her binder, Lucia’s children could well end up in San Diego County’s foster care system, where they could be separated.
Meanwhile, Wilkinson holds extra prayer services and hopes that no more of his parishioners disappear. He says two of the parish’s families have stopped coming — whether they have been deported, he doesn’t know.
“We are bearing witness to what’s going on,” he said.