Starting college is a dramatic change for any young person. For Barbara Garcia, it was like moving to a whole new country. Her family lives in Southern California, where her Mexican-born parents work long hours in agriculture. The Garcias have always lived in rented houses, typically shared with at least one other family. When Barbara Garcia arrived on campus at Colby College in central Maine, she said, “it was the first time I had my own room, my own bed, my own privacy.”
Now 19 years old, Garcia is thriving academically and socially at the prestigious liberal arts college—not always a given for low-income first-generation college students making such a major transition. But Donald Trump’s immigration policy has put her path there in jeopardy. Garcia was born in the United States, as were her two younger siblings. She is a citizen. But her parents, who arrived in California in the mid-1990s, are undocumented.
“If something were to happen and my parents were detained or deported, I would leave Colby to take care of my siblings,” Garcia said recently by phone. “That would be my decision.” (“Barbara Garcia” is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of her parents.) She agreed to speak with me about how Trump’s policies and rhetoric are affecting her family.
Between his executive order in January and his follow-up memos last month, Trump has powerfully signaled his intentions to crack down on illegal immigration. He has instructed the Department of Homeland Security to hire 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and 5,000 Border Patrol agents, for example. He has also given immigration officers new freedom to pick up anyone charged with any criminal offense, no matter how small, and without any finding of guilt. Although funding and enforcement details are still far from resolved, these moves have struck fear in immigrant communities around the country.
Garcia has a hard time talking about all of this with her parents. Growing up, she said, “the threat was always there, but it wasn’t something we talked about every day or something that was always in our face.” Her decision to move across the county for college was difficult for her parents, and the fact that their American life now feels in danger makes the distance seem even more treacherous. Her mother has attended several informational sessions held in her community, where she is getting legal advice on things like what to do if ICE comes to their home. Garcia tries not to sound afraid over the phone when they talk. But she has trouble sleeping at night. “It’s been difficult to deal with schoolwork, with this constant threat in my head,” she told me. “It got to a point where if a got a text message or a call in California from an unknown number, I automatically assumed the worst—that it was my sibling or my mom calling me from a detention center or something, telling me something had gone wrong.”
If Garcia’s parents are detained or deported, the likeliest scenario is that her young sister would move back to Mexico with her parents and Garcia herself would move back to California to care for her teenage brother. He has never been to Mexico, but Garcia has been there three times in the past five years. The rural area where her parents’ families live has water pumps and a drainage system, but no toilets or showers. The bathrooms are outhouse-style, and people boil large barrels of water to bathe. The roads are not paved. Her parents have not saved up enough money to build a house for themselves back home, as many families do, so if they return, they will have to move back in with one of their own parents.
There are about 5.1 million children under age 18 who live in America with at least one undocumented parent, according to an estimate last year by the Migration Policy Institute. “Dreamers”—people brought into the country illegally as young children—have attracted significant media attention in recent years. But even U.S. citizens like Garcia bear heavy burdens if their parents are undocumented. If one parent, usually the father, is deported, the mother who remains often has little work experience, few language skills, and a fear of the authorities, said Randy Capps, the Migration Policy Institute’s director of research for U.S. Programs. “That puts a lot of burden on the older kids,” he said. “They really take on a high level of responsibility for the functioning of the family.”
Lindsay Mayka, an assistant professor of government at Colby who has taught Garcia, says she is an extremely strong student and a leader on campus. Mayka (who is a friend of mine) has had many students from “mixed-status” families in class over the years. Another Colby student, a senior whose mother is undocumented, told me she has always feared having to drop out of school to care for her younger siblings; her parents prepared her for the possibility of becoming a “second mother” at any time. “How can one concentrate on homework and doing reading for class and doing a problem set, when they’re carrying this extra burden that other students don’t have to carry?” Mayka said. “Just because someone is a citizen doesn’t mean their lives won’t be ripped apart by deportation.”
Capps said it’s unusual for both parents in a family to be arrested or deported at the same time, because most deportation proceedings go through the criminal justice system. Trump is obviously committed to deporting a wider swath of immigrants than his predecessor—ICE’s recent crackdown has included roadside raids, and Trump has sought to establish undocumented immigrants in general as dangerous criminals, even going so far as to feature the relatives of people killed by immigrants at the Republican National Convention and as guests at his joint address to Congress. But a primary focus is still those at least accused of crimes. The gender imbalance in the criminal justice system has historically meant that the vast majority of ICE deportees are men—91 percent, according to the Migration Policy Institute’s analysis of all removals between 2003 and 2013. That trend may persist under Trump. In a highly publicized crackdown on “criminal aliens, illegal re-entrants and immigration fugitives” earlier this month in Southern California, 95 percent of those arrested were male.
Of course, the notion that probably both of her parents won’t be deported—maybe just her father?—is little comfort to Garcia. If she graduates from college, she will be the first in her family to do so. She is acutely aware of the example that would set for her siblings and what it would mean for the immigrants who raised her.
“My parents always told me they came to this country for a better opportunity for their children—not necessarily for themselves but for their children,” she said. She graduated third in her high school class and applied to Colby early decision in order to maximize her financial aid package. There, she has found a community that will feel her absence if the crackdown forces her to leave. “I feel like I embody the American dream,” she said. But now, “everything I worked so hard for could end any day.”