Kim Brooks reports in The Cut:
“Yolanda already knows what it feels like to leave a child behind.
She left three in her native Guatemala just over two decades ago. “I had to decide so quickly,” she told me. “My husband had already crossed. My mother told me to go, to send money back to them, and that the children would follow when they were old enough.” They were 16 months, 7, and 9. Twenty-one years later, she’s still waiting.
Since she came to America, Yolanda has had another daughter. She’s 8 years old, and she has autism, which makes the struggle to establish an ordinary American life even harder. And then there’s the fact that, like more than 11 million other people in America, Yolanda is an undocumented immigrant. While her status has always been insecure, the risks it posed always seemed like an abstraction, and her community in Staten Island seemed to be mostly on her side. Then Donald Trump was elected president, and the incendiary rhetoric about immigrant communities that he had used on the campaign trail became an almost unbelievable reality. Suddenly, the future is as painful for Yolanda to contemplate as the past.
El Centro del Inmigrante, an educational organization and worker center in Port Richmond, Staten Island. Photo: David Cortes. Photo Editor: Biel Parklee.
“My biggest fear,” she said through a translator, as we sat across from each other in a small office at El Centro del Inmigrante, a community-based educational organization and worker center in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Staten Island, “is that I’ll be deported and my daughter will have to stay here. I have nobody to leave her with. But I’m also afraid of having to bring her back to a country where they won’t have any of the services she needs.”
The prospect of leaving her daughter behind is especially frightening because of her autism. “I have to monitor her constantly. I help her with everything she does. I tie her shoes, feed her. She sleeps with me. No one’s going to do that the way I do. Who would ever be able to take my place?”
The political transformation that forced such questions to the front of Yolanda’s mind began almost as soon as Trump came into office. An executive order signed in January mandated the detention of any undocumented person with or without a criminal record, just so long as he or she “pose[s] a risk to national security” in the thoroughly undefined “judgment of an immigration officer.” It also authorized the hiring of an additional 10,000 ICE agents. Meanwhile, those already in place seemed to interpret their role differently right away. In the first three months of 2017, the Washington Post reported, ICE arrested 5,441 undocumented immigrants without criminal records; in the same period last year, the number was less than half of that. And last Friday ICE announced what it called a “surge initiative,” a program to arrest immigrant parents who hire smugglers to bring their children to join them. Immigration advocates call the program “unimaginably cruel.”
In her community in Staten Island, which once seemed to Yolanda like a haven, the national picture seems to be encroaching with disturbing speed. In February, five Mexican immigrants in the borough were picked up in ICE raids, part of a wider sweep across New York City that led to a total of 41 arrests. In June, ICE arrested a teenager in New York State on the day of his senior prom. In this new climate, undocumented parents are panicking: flooding El Centro’s offices, desperate for information, trying to understand what Trump’s promise to deport as many undocumented immigrants as possible will mean for them. El Centro is scrambling to respond to the overwhelming new demand for its services, setting up workshops to help parents better understand their options, helping frightened parents apply for the services for their U.S.-born children, and providing up-to-date information on new enforcement measures. “We’ve been around since 1997,” said Favio Ramirez-Caminatti, the nonprofit’s executive director. “We’ve never seen a situation like this.”
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America needs a realistic legalization program.