On Sunday, Feb. 26, the sermon at the Spanish-language Mass in Waterloo, Iowa, was about fear. Like many Catholic churches, the tan-brick, gothic Queen of Peace serves as a community center for Hispanic immigrants in this Cedar River town of 68,000. Waterloo has a claim to be Iowa’s most diverse big city. Immigrants, including Latinos and refugees from Bosnia, Myanmar, and Liberia, have helped stabilize its population and housing market, and revived downtown storefronts. But for the undocumented men and women of eastern Iowa who work in meatpacking, restaurants, and hotels, a chill has set in since the inauguration of President Donald Trump and the introduction of his new, aggressive priorities for Immigration and Customs Enforcement police.
The deacon of Queen of Peace, the Rev. Rigoberto Real, told a slightly smaller-than-usual crowd not to let fear overtake their lives, to leave things in God’s hands. But not everything: The following Sunday there would be a workshop with lawyers in the church basement to help parishioners prepare should one of their worst fears—detainment and deportation by ICE—come to pass.
That next Sunday, the church was so full it had to open the balconies. Scores of people joined lawyers in the basement after Mass for what has become, for unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., an essential ritual of the Trump era: drafting legal documents, and making emergency plans, for what will happen to their children if a parent is detained or deported.
Those plans encompass everything from who will pick up the kids from school if their parents are detained, to who will buy plane tickets if the U.S.-born children follow their parents to Mexico or Central America, to who will raise them if they remain apart from their parents but in American schools. Miryam Antúnez de Mayolo, an immigration lawyer who has practiced law in Iowa for 18 years and helped organize the church event, told me she had never seen an atmosphere so tense—not even after the Bush-era Postville raid, which became a symbol of the harms of dragnet immigration enforcement.
“I’ve never seen this level of desperation,” she said. “In this brave new world, I do not know what is normal now.”
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The widely covered February deportation of Guadalupe García de Rayos, the Phoenix mother of two who had been convicted of using a false Social Security number nine years ago, inaugurated a new era of immigration policing. Aliens with or without deportation orders had settled into something like comfort under the revised priorities of Obama’s second term, when the administration decreed that authorities should focus their enforcement efforts squarely on violent criminal aliens, taking a hands-off approach to everyone else. Now these off-the-books U.S. residents are targets again.
There’s a sense, said Gunda Brost, an immigration lawyer in Cedar Falls, Iowa, who helped parents prepare surrogate caretakers for their children at Queen of Peace, that “everybody is now fair game.”
If you’ve followed the news, you might recognize names like Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco, the restaurant manager and town pillar in West Frankfort, Illinois, who was arrested on Feb. 9; Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, the father who was arrested with his daughter in the car outside a Los Angeles school; and Jose Escobar, a 31-year-old father with no criminal record and a temporary reprieve who was deported earlier this month from Houston to El Salvador, a country he last saw at 15.
What the three of them and Guadalupe García de Rayos have in common are children who are U.S. citizens. They are among the estimated 3.7 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. with American-born kids. And their arrests have served as a reminder to immigrants nationwide that they must plan for the possibility of temporary and long-term separation from their children.
This is not strictly new. It’s estimated that 4.5 million U.S. citizen children have at least one undocumented parent. A 2015 report from the Migration Policy Institute and the Urban Institute projected that between 2009 and 2013, 500,000 parents of American children were deported—about 100,000 a year. Most of those parents were fathers; most of the children remained in the U.S. But the threat did diminish in the later years of the Obama administration. In the second half of 2015, for example, ICE removed 15,000 undocumented immigrants who claimed at least one U.S. citizen child—down from 72,000 for the full year in 2013.
And it seemed like help was on the way. The Obama administration tried to protect these people through its Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, program, which would have provided DACA-style deferments to 3.3 million undocumented parents with U.S. citizen children, and another 340,000 with adult children. That order was effectively struck down when a shorthanded Supreme Court split 4–4 in United States v. Texas in June.
The election ratcheted up anxiety in Hispanic communities. Carmen Zuvieta, a leader of ICE Out of Austin, which has campaigned for now-threatened sanctuary policies in the Texas capital, told Rolling Stone in December that undocumented immigrants should prepare for Trump as they would be for a natural disaster—including establishing power of attorney and custody arrangements for their kids. Her own husband was deported four years ago. At the time, she made plans to have her youngest child, now 6, cared for by the oldest, now 26. In many cases, she said, the children have never visited their parents’ homeland. And while it’s impossible to generalize about millions of families in that situation, one central tension remains, she told Slate: “For the kids, it’s difficult to let go of their parents. But the future is better here.”
Zuvieta now has residency. But what she feared is now real. With Trump in office, one of her sisters stopped working entirely and is afraid to go out and buy groceries. The only place undocumented immigrants seem to congregate these days is at meetings to prepare emergency plans for their arrest, like the two organized recently by ICE Out of Austin, which drew big crowds. Parent and child’s roles are reversed: It’s the American-born teenagers who are entrusted with grocery shopping, who can legally drive, while the adults desperately make contingency plans. But the kids have it worse, Zuvieta said: “The fear those kids have is incredible. They feel the fear of abandonment, the fear their parents won’t come back.”
The past few weeks have been unlike any that immigration lawyers and advocates can remember. The actions of ICE police emboldened by Trump—such as the arrest of Daniela Vargas, after the 22-year-old Dreamer and two-time DACA recipient spoke at a news conference in Jackson, Mississippi, about the detainment of her father and brother—have made undocumented immigrants wary of speaking to media and even going out in public. They are missing from church, from the supermarket, from the public library.
“The current theme is mainly just one of fear,” said Alyson Showell, who runs the Hispanic Family Center in Camden, New Jersey. “We’ve definitely seen attendance decline in some of our day programs. People are afraid to show up.”
Unauthorized immigrants are rushing to prepare guardianship agreements and vest powers of attorney in friends and relatives, from Indianapolis to Los Angeles. After Avelica-Gonzalez’s arrest, for example, the administration of his daughter’s school held a special assembly to discuss the incident, the Los Angeles Times reported, and the school’s director asked teachers to talk to students whose parents are unauthorized about creating a family plan in case their parents are deported. The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles has handed out sample guardianship appointment forms.
Several immigration experts I spoke to said it was unlikely that ICE would deport both parents of a U.S. citizen child from the United States. “ICE may consider whether the individual is a parent or legal guardian of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, or the primary care taker of any minor,” said an ICE spokesperson in a statement. Those lawyers suggested that an atmosphere of paranoia, fueled by false reports of ICE checkpoints, had overtaken immigrant communities.
The removal of both parents has historically been rare. “ICE has some discretion, and they would ask if [an arrestee] were the primary caregiver,” said Heather Koball, one of the authors of the MPI report. “It was fairly uncommon to find cases where both parents had been deported.”
Still, undocumented single mothers whose spouses have been deported (and they are mostly mothers) must take precautions. Thousands of kids have wound up in foster care because both parents were detained or deported. No one knows whether Trump’s ICE will respect precedent. Even if a parent is arrested but released on grounds of being a sole caretaker, the interim period can be ruinous.
“Even if they’re not deported right away, they need to appoint someone to pick up their kids from school,” Antúnez de Mayolo explained. “If they have a medical condition, they need someone to access medical records. If it’s a long-term issue, then they need to enable the person who is going to take over parental rights to, say, get a passport for the children, or be able to place them on a trip back home on a plane.”
Asking that favor is a significant imposition. It can mean getting a relative in another state to be ready on a moment’s notice. For Karina Z., a hotel worker in Clinton, Iowa, and one of Antúnez de Mayolo’s clients, it meant working up the nerve to ask a friend with citizenship if she would assume power of attorney for Karina’s three U.S. citizen children, ages 4, 5, and 10.
Everywhere, undocumented immigrants are trying to find friends and relatives to assume responsibility for their children in a worst-case scenario. “There’s a huge concern,” said Debra Gilmore, the director and co-founder of Immigration Advocacy Services in Queens, New York. Her organization has been beset with requests to address immigrant parents in congregations or at parent-teacher associations, and is for the first time distributing an emergency packet, complete with a power of attorney form.
With new vigilance, advocates also counsel parents to discuss their own possible arrests and deportations with their children, said Martha Real, the deacon’s wife and right hand at Queen of Peace. Those conversations signify, beyond documents, a more profound shift in the outlook of the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, from cautious stability to a sense of anxiety that extends to every responsibility in their lives.
In Atlanta, immigration attorney Carolina Antonini has confronted a surge of interest in power of attorney agreements over the past few weeks. As an immigration lawyer, she doesn’t handle those forms and passes clients to lawyers that do. Still, she said, the array of requests was staggering, as longtime Atlanta residents struggle to entrust every facet of their American life to someone else.
“Everything from my children, my grandchildren, my elderly parents, homes, vehicles, debt, bank accounts, pets, chickens, goats, I mean you name it,” said Antonini, who has worked in immigration law for 25 years. “I have never seen anything like it.”