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Waco immigrants brace for unknowns with new Trump administration

14 Jan 17
Rebecca Larsen
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Waco Tribune 
By J.B. Smith
Full story here

President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to build a wall on the Mexican border, unravel protections for the children of unauthorized immigrants and quickly deport several million people.

But as politicians and experts debate the practicality of those plans as his Friday inauguration nears, local immigrants are making plans of their own to protect their families.

For Alma, a Waco catering worker from Monterrey, Mexico, that means arranging for her mother to drive down from Dallas if she is detained by immigration agents. Her mother would take care of her three children, two of whom are American citizens.

“My main concern is that if something like that happens, what am I going to do?” said Alma, who asked to withhold her surname for this story. “They’ve been living here their entire lives. They go to school here. They speak English better than Spanish. Taking them to Mexico is a big change for them that may not work for them. . . . I think most families are in the same situation of, what am going to do with my kids?”

Immigration attorneys and advocates say nothing is certain about the next four years under Trump, but they advise people without solid legal status to take precautions.

Susan Nelson, an immigration attorney, said she has seen since the election a wave of people trying to get green cards, citizenship or some other protections from deportation.

Nelson doubts the already overwhelmed immigration legal system could handle a program of mass deportation. But she said the complicated lives of unauthorized immigrants are about to get more complicated.

‘Pretty bad’

“I expect it to be pretty bad,” Nelson said.

For example, Trump has said he will immediately reverse Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the policy President Barack Obama established by executive order in 2012. DACA has allowed some 750,000 teenagers and young adults who arrived in the U.S. before their 16th birthday to work, travel and drive without fear of deportation.

“These people have come out of the shadows. They’re paying their taxes, and they’re a lot better able to support their families,” Nelson said. “I think one of the best things about DACA is that it’s taken fear out of their lives. There’s no longer the fear that going to college may be all for naught.

“The concern is that President-elect Trump said DACA would be gone on the first day. We don’t know if that means they have deferred action until 2018 or if they no longer have authorization to work.”

Alma’s son, Edgar, is among those waiting to find that out.

Alma and her then-husband brought Edgar here as a 10-month-old when they came on a tourist visa. They stayed here and built a life, and Edgar grew up only vaguely aware his citizenship status is different from his siblings, now 12 and 14.

“I was about 13 or 14 when I came to question it,” Edgar said.

He is a high school senior who has DACA and is applying for college, including to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I knew I was born in Mexico and my siblings were not,” Edgar said. “Because of the place I was born, I couldn’t leave the country. I couldn’t do certain social things. I couldn’t get in trouble.”

McLennan Community College President Johnette McKown said she hopes DACA students, also known as “Dreamers,” won’t have go back into the shadows.

“We’re personally and professionally concerned,” McKown said. “It’s important, because what else will they be doing if they’re not able to follow their career? I think an educated society is a better society than one that has no education and no opportunity.”

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators proposed a new bill this month called the Bridge Act. It would allow young adults in Edgar’s situation the freedom to live and work in the U.S. for a three-year period.

In an interview last week, U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, whose district includes McLennan County, called DACA unconstitutional as an executive action but said he would support similar aims if achieved through legislative means.

“If we have an offspring of somebody who came here illegally, and these folks are otherwise minding their business . . . then I don’t see a need to deport them if they’re not breaking the law, if they’re going to school or trying to get a job,” Flores said.

“I’m fine with a path to some sort of legal status and ultimately to citizenship, because they never broke the law. . . . When I talk to the constituents of this district, they’re generally fine with a path to citizenship for the Dreamers.”

Edgar said he doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about his immigration status. His mind is mostly occupied with academics and the robotics club at his school.

But he said DACA has been a big help to him.

“Hopefully, that process will not be wasted in the coming term of the president-elect,” Edgar said. “If they can’t keep DACA, make something better than DACA. Scrap the whole thing and make something better.”

But even with protections for Dreamers, an immigration crackdown could make life difficult for families with mixed immigration status.

The biggest wave of illegal immigration was between the late 1980s and the early 2000s, and many of those immigrants settled down and had children who have birthright citizenship.

Alma, who was part of that wave, has two citizen children, but that doesn’t give her any immediate path to permanent status herself.

Alma’s attorney, Anali Looper of the nonprofit group American Gateways, has advised her to drive as little as possible and make sure she doesn’t give authorities any reason to detain her. Alma said she tries to be cautious but not anxious.

“I’m somewhat tranquil,” she said in an interview at Looper’s office last week at the Good Neighbor House on Colcord Avenue. “My children are good students, and none of us have problems with the law.”

“I do think you’re not bearing in mind how serious it is,” Looper responded. “But I do understand that, for your children and for your life, you have to continue without living in constant fear.”

“I can’t live that way,” Alma said.

Nelson, the immigration attorney, said a mass deportation effort would be logistically difficult, because the immigration courts are already backed up. Many of her clients facing immigration charges are out on bond and won’t have a hearing until November 2019, she said.

“It’s just hard to see how that’s going to work,” Nelson said of Trump’s plans to step up deportations. “Right now, the courts are moving as fast as they can, but enforcement has far outpaced immigration courts.”

Still, even a slight risk of being deported or placed in an immigrant detention center is a cause for anxiety when the stakes involve family separation.

That’s the nightmare Eloisa Haynes worries about.

She is married to an American citizen, Nick Haynes, and has a green card designating her as a “legal permanent resident.” Eloisa and her husband both work in higher education, and they have a 1-year-old son, Bellamy.

But having been denied full citizenship, she still feels vulnerable.

“If you had asked me 18 months ago, no one would have thought Donald Trump could be president after everything he’s said about women, immigrants and Muslims,” she said. “Now everything is possible. I don’t want to live in denial and say, ‘Surely, it wouldn’t happen to me.’ ”

A painful story

Eloisa, now 34, said it is painful to talk about her immigration story, but she considers it her duty.

She waded the Rio Grande with her family when she was 13 and has lived in Waco ever since.

“My family and I had good lives in Mexico,” she said. “We enjoyed the community and the culture, and we never dreamed of immigration. But my dad lost his job, and it was a very difficult season.”

She said her parents tried to get a visa to come here but found a waiting list of 20 years. Her father came to the U.S. by himself to work, and the family found that separation was too difficult.

“My parents made the most difficult choice they could,” Eloisa said. “We were smuggled in. In my mind, all I knew is I wanted to see my dad. I hadn’t seen him in a year. As a child, I did not understand the ramifications. We could have been trafficked, assaulted or killed.”

She got to know Nick through Antioch Community Church and through Baylor University, where he was a student and she was a Starbucks barista.

A native of Muskogee, Oklahama, Nick wasn’t particularly sympathetic to the plight of unauthorized immigrants as a young man. But as the couple made plans to marry, he found himself frustrated by the obstacles immigration officials put between them.

“I’m ashamed to say it took that direct impact on me to really get it,” Nick said.

Eloisa had to go back to Mexico for three months and apply for a green card. Four years ago, her quest for citizenship ended because of a decision she made when she was 19.

Back then, she had checked a box on an I-9 employment form saying she was an American citizen, a move that, once discovered, caused her to be barred from citizenship for life.

“That’s what many undocumented people do, never knowing the ramifications,” Eloisa said. “The only way for me ever to become a citizen is a change in the law.

“My lawyer says, do not travel. My green card is valid. But just because an immigration official chose to exercise discretion and did not revoke the green card, it doesn’t mean another office won’t revoke my file. Permanent resident is the most misleading term. There’s nothing permanent about being a permanent legal resident.”

The election of Donald Trump only darkens the picture for her and for the friends and family members who don’t even have a green card. She said she cried all day Nov. 9.

“Already, his rhetoric has changed the way people view immigrants,” Eloisa said. “He has stirred up a lot of anger and animosity from people who don’t understand how broken the immigration system is. In their mind, it’s just, ‘What part of illegal don’t you understand?’ ”

The Hayneses are part of the Waco Immigration Alliance, which seeks to advocate for immigrants through education and political activism. The group spoke to Waco City Council in December about policing issues and is hosting a public educational event Jan. 29.

The event, called “Welcoming Communities,” starts at 4 p.m. at the Mission Waco chapel, 1226 Washington Ave.

Meanwhile, Looper is raising money to expand her nonprofit group’s immigration law services in Waco. She said she hopes to be part of educating immigrants on how to protect themselves while educating the community on the human potential of immigrants.

“Those with legal status need to sit up and learn and hear the real facts about how this affects real people and how it affects our economy,” Looper said. “On Nov. 9, I had clients coming into my office with kids, elementary-aged children, who were terrified. Do we really want to have our children grow up afraid? Let’s talk about immigration policy, but let’s not make threats that can’t be completed.”

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