On November 9, 2016 — the day after the presidential election — Marisol Aguilar was going about her normal routine of cleaning a client’s house, one that she had cleaned “all the time for many years.” On this particular day, Aguilar, a 35-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, couldn’t help but see the dark irony of having to clean up “a filthy, filthy mess” left by her client’s friends, who had attended a celebration of Donald Trump’s election at the home the night before.
She imagined the revelers had taken part in plenty of discussions about building a wall on the border between the United States and Mexico — a key Trump campaign promise — and about how undocumented immigrants like her should be treated as criminals.
“There were dishes piled everywhere,” Aguilar recalled, speaking to a reporter through an interpreter. “The house was just a mess. That is how I came to know the woman’s politics. It was already an emotionally heavy experience, the election. But knowing that the people who I was cleaning up after didn’t want me or my family in this country was emotionally devastating.”
As the weeks progressed, Aguilar noticed something change in the client, whom she did not name out of respect for her family. “She kept asking me over and over what I thought of the new president,” Aguilar said. “Eventually she made it clear that she didn’t want me working for her anymore.”
The vast majority of Aguilar’s clients are white. “The only person who has offered any help or reassurance to me and my family was an Indian woman,” Aguilar said. “She could tell this was something that was really hurting [our Hispanic community].”
Two of Aguilar’s three children are American citizens, which means the threat of her family being split up is something that she must grapple with on a daily basis — as many others do.
She gets nervous when a car she doesn’t recognize is parked on her street. Before the election, she’d never had a panic attack; she’s gripped by them most days now. “I came here to work and provide a better life for my family,” Aguilar said somberly. “I’m no criminal. It’s not a crime to want a better life for your children.”
A Crackdown, As Promised
Aguilar isn’t the only undocumented Birmingham resident facing an uncertain future in today’s contentious political climate. The still-emerging policies of the Trump administration could have a wide-reaching impact on a large number of the foreign-born persons who, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, make up 3.6 percent of the city’s population.
Illegal immigration was a central focus of the 2016 presidential campaign, particularly for candidate Trump, whose promises to “build a wall” and crack down on undocumented immigrants became rallying cries at his events.
“We are the only country in the world whose immigration system puts the needs of other nations ahead of our own,” read his campaign’s immigration reform plan. “That must change.”
Trump’s immigration reform plan, which he has taken steps to enact into policy during his first month in office, is built on three core tenets: building a wall across America’s southern border (which he insists he will be able to coerce the Mexican government into paying for), enforcing existing immigration laws, and improving “jobs, wages and security for all Americans.”
Trump’s approach to that second tenet — the enforcement of current immigration laws — looks to be the easiest of the three for the president to pursue. Late last month, Trump appointed Thomas D. Homan as the new acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which some reports, such as one by the New York Times, interpreted as “an indication that the president intends to carry out his campaign pledge to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.” Trump had said in November interview with 60 Minutes that he intended to deport between two and three million illegal immigrants immediately. (Though no statistics of deportations since Trump took office have been released yet, the Los Angeles Times reports that up to eight million people could be priorities for deportation under the administration.)
One executive order, signed by Trump in the first week of his presidency, restarted the Secure Communities program, which focuses on cooperation between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in the effort to deport undocumented immigrants. That program, headed by ICE, had been discontinued in 2014. Trump’s executive order also called for tripling the number of ICE officers, with the goal of adding 10,000 members to the agency’s ranks, and promised to revoke federal funding for “sanctuary jurisdictions” — which includes Birmingham, since Jan. 31 — that limit cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration agents.
The order also provided a series of categories of undocumented immigrants to be prioritized for deportation, including any that “have been convicted of any criminal offense; have been charged with any criminal offense, where such charge has not been resolved; have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense; have engaged in fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency; have abused any program related to receipt of public benefits; are subject to a final order of removal, but who have not complied with their legal obligation to depart the United States; or in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.”
It’s a broader approach than the Obama administration had taken. Speaking to CNN, Hans von Spakovsky, an expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative organization that has been described as influential to Trump’s policies, said that the order “covers just about every illegal alien in the country.” Critics of the order, on the other hand, said it did not distinguish clearly enough between violent criminals and other undocumented immigrants, such as children.
“All immigrant communities are at risk,” said Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham after a meeting with Homan last week, NBC News reports.
Rep. Linda Sanchez, also at the meeting, added that Homan had said “we can and should expect many more arrests and removals this year.”
Already, ICE appears to have stepped up its efforts this year; NBC News reports that the agency arrested nearly 700 people in the first week of February, as part of what ICE described as “targeted enforcement” in a statement.
“The crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise,” Trump tweeted on February 12. “Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!”
A February 17 report by the Los Angeles Times provided several specific examples of those “others,” including two mothers of American-born children who have been forced to separate from their families, and one 23-year-old Seattle resident, Daniel Ramirez, who had been protected by the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows illegal immigrants who entered the country as children to defer deportation in renewable two-year periods.
Those sweeps have led to a rising fear among immigrant communities. “We’ve heard that some parents aren’t sending their kids to school because they’re afraid to,” Sanchez told the Los Angeles Times. “People are not answering the door, they’re not leaving their homes to go to work, because of the fear that these raids have incited.”
Clarity and Confusion
“The lack of clarity and the confusion about what the policy’s going to be is itself disruptive because people who are here and have different classifications in terms of their immigration status, they don’t know what the policy is going to be, it makes it difficult for them to go about their life and make plans,” said Professor John Gross, the director of the University of Alabama’s Criminal Defense Clinic. He noted that under the Obama administration, law enforcement was instructed not to target “sensitive areas” such as schools and hospitals so that illegal immigrants would not be afraid to have their children educated or to seek necessary medical treatment for fear of being detained.
Asked how the Trump administration’s enforcement policies have impacted the department’s daily operations, ICE Spokesperson Bryan Cox said in an email, “These are existing, established fugitive operations teams and their presence is not new, nor outside the scope of our everyday ongoing enforcement operations. Also, ICE continues to only conduct targeted immigration enforcement in compliance with federal law and agency policy. ICE does not conduct checkpoints, nor sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately.”
As to whether the Trump administration will maintain the ‘sensitive area’ policy,” Gross said he did not know. “But if they did, it’s not always the policy or the black letter of the policy but the perception,” he continued. “Those stories are circulating amongst immigrant communities that people are being targeted at hospitals, [or] people are being targeted when they go to court. The extent to which that is actually happening — how important is that in reality? Because the perception is there, and then you’re creating an environment where people are fearful to go to church on Sunday, they’re fearful to go to their kids’ school and pick them up, they’re fearful to seek medical treatment where it might be necessary.”
Unknown fate of the “Dreamers”
As the tumultuous first month of the Trump administration becomes history, many questions remain unanswered regarding future immigration policies. Among those concerns is the unknown fate of recipients of the DACA program — often referred to as “Dreamers.”
One such Dreamer, Judith Paz, 22, doesn’t remember much about her native Mexico City other than a small cache of fleeting mental snapshots from her home and kindergarten class in the crowded city. Her family brought her to Alabama when she was five. She doesn’t remember much of the trip here, either. What stuck with her instead was the feeling of being in a strange land where she “didn’t speak the language and didn’t know a soul.”
“It was hard. School was hard,” Paz said, pausing for a moment to wipe away a few tears that had clung to her cheek. The level of uncertainty surrounding her future, she explained, means a chance for tears is always in the forecast. “I was bullied because I didn’t speak the language. They’re kids, you know. That’s what they do. But it helped make me stronger.”
Perhaps it was naive to think that college would be the inevitable next step for her education, as is the case with most high school students, Paz said. College was her big dream. “All my classmates would talk about getting scholarships and where they wanted to go to school. When I realized I couldn’t — DACA wasn’t a thing yet [the Obama administration enacted the policy in 2012] — I had no choice. In California, children are given more opportunities to go to school no matter your status. Here in Alabama it’s different,” Paz said. Due to circumstances beyond her control, Paz had to attend high school knowing that college was not going to be an option for her. Despite that probability, she graduated with honors.
No one in Paz’s family had attended college. When she was 16, she resigned herself to working odd jobs in order to help support her family financially. “But then DACA happened. And it changed my life. I mean, there is really no other way to explain it,” Paz said, still swiping away rolling tears. “Imagine being told you can’t go to college while all your classmates can, even though I’ve lived here basically my whole life. Just try and imagine that — those feelings, those emotions.”
Since DACA recipients are not eligible for federal financial aid, Paz took a year off in order to work and save money after graduating from Homewood High School. This past fall, Paz fulfilled a “lifelong dream” and enrolled at the University of Alabama. She still pays for education out of pocket, which requires her to work two jobs — waiting tables at a restaurant on Highway 280 (she did not want to disclose where) and as a certified medical interpreter, for which she goes to “various hospitals and clinics and translates the documents for Spanish speaking citizens,” — while commuting back and forth from her parent’s house in Birmingham to classes in Tuscaloosa.
After the election, everything changed, Paz said. Fear, insecurity, and sadness took the place of the otherwise exhausting joys of being a college student. Her DACA status is set to expire in two months. It remains unclear whether the program will continue that long, despite Trump’s signaling that he is open to keeping the policy in place. As he told reporters during a freewheeling press conference, “DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me. To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have because you have these incredible kids in many cases, not in all cases … but you have some absolutely incredible kids, I would say mostly, that were brought here in such a way — it’s a very very tough subject.”
The uncertainty facing DACA recipients was further highlighted on February 10, when Daniel Ramirez, a 23-year-old Dreamer with no criminal record, was arrested in his father’s home in Seattle. An ICE spokeswoman released a statement saying that Ramirez admitted to being a gang member, which his lawyers denied. His attorneys have filed suit alleging that Ramirez is being held unlawfully, but a judge last week declined to release him from detention.
Ramirez’s case shows that while the Trump administration has not revoked DACA protections, “that’s not going to necessarily stop ICE agents arresting and threatening to deport someone who has received DACA,” said Jessica Vosburgh, director of the Adelante Alabama Worker’s Center, a nonprofit group that works to protect immigrant rights in the state. “It’s hard to say what will happen on a national level or here in Alabama, but it’s certainly not out of the picture for our members and people in our community who have received DACA, that they could be targeted for action as well.”
On February 16, the Los Angeles Times reported that while Trump has so far declined to sign a drafted executive order to end DACA, White House aides were exploring two new strategies to end the program through other means. “If the Justice Department determines that DACA is not legal or is no longer a responsible use of prosecutorial discretion, the Department of Homeland Security would be instructed to stop awarding and renewing work permits,” the report reads.
“Another possible path involves the courts. A handful of governors are considering a challenge patterned on the 2014 lawsuit filed by several conservative state officials against the Obama administration’s expansion of deportation protections. If they sue, [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions could instruct his lawyers not to defend the program in court, exposing it to indefinite suspension by a federal judge.”
That fog of uncertainty — that deportation might be just around the corner — follows Paz wherever she goes.
In Alabama, no mass deportations yet, but fear
As of several months ago, the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA) would “every now and then” help uneasy immigrant families complete their power of attorney forms –— assigning an attorney to handle their financial and legal affairs in the event something were to happen to them (e.g. deportation or indefinite detention) — according to HICA executive director Isabel Rubio. As of this month, the number of people seeking powers of attorney has exploded to “15 or so a day,” Rubio said. “We’re just doing tons of them now.”
That new benchmark provides a small glimpse into how immigrant families in Alabama are reacting to the rising threat of mass deportations under the Trump administration. Even more remarkable is the fact that this sudden increase in deportations comes on the heels of an administration that deported more people than any prior president, with 3.1 million “aliens turned over to ICE for removal” between 2008 and 2016, according to DHS records (a statistic that earned Obama the nickname “deporter-in-chief” in many immigrant circles).
On February 21, the DHS released a set of documents detailing the ways in which Trump’s executive orders will become policy, as reported by the New York Times. The changes could mean sweeping changes in who is targeted for expedited deportation proceedings; under the Obama administration, only people within 100 miles of the border who have been in the country for 14 days were subject to deportation. Now it will include anyone who has been in the United States for less than two years.
This policy overhaul would require substantial increases in staffing for customs agencies. The DHS documents indicate the department will begin the process of hiring an additional 10,000 immigration and customs agents. “The directives would also instruct Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as Customs and Border Protection, the parent agency of the Border Patrol, to begin reviving a program that recruits local police officers and sheriff’s deputies to help with deportation, effectively making them de facto immigration agents. The effort, called the 287(g) program, was scaled back during the Obama administration,” the Times reported.
“The kids know what’s going on,” Rubio said, detailing the ways in which fear and stress can beset entire households. “You have kids that are telling their mommies and papis that if something were to happen, they want to go with them, [and] not be left behind… Not to mention being bullied at school. When you have a president of the United States who is using hate speech against these communities, it makes it okay for folks who may have some negative feelings toward these groups to take action.”
Rubio’s organization helps children apply for DACA, a resource used by Paz every two years since she was in high school, as well assist new citizens in registering to vote.
Groups like HICA and the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice have been working overtime to begin charting a course through “unknown territories” while working closely with the Muslim community, another group denigrated heavily during the campaign trail and now the White House.
Trump’s January 25 executive order stated that “[s]anctuary jurisdictions across the United States willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States. These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.” He promised to ensure that “jurisdictions that fail to comply with applicable Federal law do not receive federal funds; except as mandated by law.”
So-called “sanctuary cities,” a category which now includes Birmingham, place limits on how local law enforcement can cooperate with federal immigration agents. Such cities were a frequent target of Trump’s campaign rhetoric. However, it is not yet clear whether the president can legally revoke funding to such cities, said Adelante’s Jessica Vosburgh, who is herself a practicing attorney for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. She noted that while the Supreme Court has never heard a case dealing with sanctuary cities in the past, the justices have consistently protected states and local jurisdictions from having funding revoked when they have restricted local cooperation with federal programs.
“There are several different limitations on what Trump can do related to revoking or giving funding in order to implement his policies, one of them being the 10th Amendment,” which reserves powers not delegated to the federal government by the Constitution to the states, she argued. The federalist system outlined by the 10th Amendment “places strong limitations that the Supreme Court has recognized on the federal government’s ability to coerce local actors to carry out federal policy objectives.”
Six days after Trump signed the executive order on sanctuary jurisdictions, the Birmingham City Council voted to designate Birmingham a “sanctuary city.” Some, including Mayor William Bell, expressed concern that designating Birmingham a sanctuary city could violate the state’s Beason-Hammon Act, which bars cities from enacting policies that conflict with state or federal law. In response to such objections, the council’s attorney Freddy Rubio told Weld at the time that the resolution “doesn’t set any policy” but instead expressed “the spirit, the heart, the intent, the sentiment” that Birmingham’s city government takes toward immigrants.
“It means very little for the time being, not because of state law, but just because of the fact that it was basically a declaratory statement or statement of intent. We’ll be pressuring the city to implement concrete policies to protect the entire community including the immigrant community of Birmingham,” said Vosburgh. “The Hammon-Beason Law has some limitations on what local jurisdictions can do, but they’re very narrow, and so implementing policies that might be considered welcoming . . . is not necessarily going to violate that state law.”
Vosburgh listed policies such as stronger anti-racial profiling guidelines, forbidding city employees from asking individuals about their immigration status, and refusing to allow ICE agents to access the city’s jails or law enforcement databases as steps the city could take that would not run afoul of state or federal law.
The sharing of information between local law enforcement agencies is of particular importance, Vosburgh noted, because most deportations start when an undocumented immigrant is detained by local law enforcement and their information is shared with federal agents who then initiate deportation proceedings.
“What we saw during the last eight years, what will continue and possibly increase, is a very deep level of collusion between ICE and local law enforcement agencies. And that means anyone who’s fingerprinted, arrested by local law enforcement agencies — which could be for driving without a license, which could be for any range of charges that would normally be dismissed, and in some cases even for people who witnessed or were victims of crime — the results are automatically their information is shared with the Department of Homeland Security and in some locations the local jail can also pass them over to ICE. That’s where the vast majority of vast majority of deportations start, is in local jails,” she said. “We had that over the last decade but for now I think what we think is going to happen is a continued and increased reliance on the jail-to-deportation pipeline.”
Fear cultivates silence
In October 2016, Gabriel Diaz Valverde met a man while working on a job site who said that he had some work for him — “a few side jobs after we’d finish working for the day,” Valverde said. For an undocumented immigrant from Mexico like Valverde, manual labor is one of the main sources of income
He eventually accompanied the contractor to several job sites in Florida with his friend Javier Martinez. Upon their return, it quickly became apparent that the contractor had no intention of paying for their labor. Such examples of wage theft have been on the rise in recent years, because undocumented workers have little to no legal ground to stand on and transgressions — financial or otherwise — often go unreported.
Valverde, who is 36, had immigrated to Alabama from Mexico seven years ago. He decided he would fight back. “We did roofing work for him and his company. He didn’t pay us, so we called him many times and we wrote him letters. We even organized a protest outside his house, and he just wouldn’t pay us,” Valverde said, speaking over the phone with the help of a translator. “When he finally sat down to speak with us, he said he was going to report us to the police or to immigration officials. We were worried that he was going to do that, or even beat us up.”
A 2012 study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute found that the U.S. Department of Labor recovered $280 million from wage and hour violators; state departments of labor in 44 states (not including Alabama) recovered $172 million; state attorneys general in 45 states recovered $14 million; private attorneys recovered $467 million in wage and hour class action lawsuits. Experts believe this is just a fraction of the amount of actually stolen wages since most instances go unreported. Some estimates show the amount of stolen wages in the United States to be north of $1 billion annually.
After Valverde filed a lawsuit, the contractor decided to settle the case out of court and pay the lost wages. “Their attorney has assured me a check will be in the mail soon,” Valverde said. While he felt vindicated, Valverde said being paid for his work is not chief among his concerns at the moment.
“My brother and I are scared every day when we leave our house for work, or even when we are at work, because there could be a raid at any moment, it feels like,” Valverde said. Asked how the current climate compares to 2011 when HB 56, widely regarding as the strictest immigration law in the country, was passed by the Alabama Legislature, Valverde said, “In 2011 it felt like we were given one big warning. People knew to stay inside. With this, it’s uncertain. You never know — at any moment, wherever you are, you could get picked up.”
The truth of that hits close to home for Valverde. Javier Martinez, the friend who worked with Valverde and had his wages stolen by the same contractor, was detained by ICE for four months and was released last week with the help of Adelante.
Marisol Aguilar, the housekeeper, considers herself lucky to have not been directly involved with wage theft instances like Valverde, but for her there are other, perhaps more troubling, symptoms of the silence cultivated by threats of detention and deportation.
“If I got beaten up or robbed, I don’t think I would even call the police, because chances are they would report me to immigration officials rather than try and catch who hurt me,” Aguilar said. “In our neighborhood, we can’t even walk down the street without fearing like someone will see us and call the authorities.”
Many undocumented immigrants are now afraid to report crimes to the police for fear of deportation, Gross said. He noted that last week, ICE officials in El Paso County, Texas, arrested an undocumented immigrant when she went to court to obtain a protective order against a boyfriend that she alleged was abusing her.
“Even if you’re in the country illegally, even if you don’t have status as a citizen . . . you have the rights of due process, you have the right to petition in court,” Gross said. “I understand that that frustrates some people, but the reason that that exists is so you don’t have the situation where you create a group of people that are beyond the reach of the law, that have no legal recourse, and . . . where they are perpetually put in a situation where they are victims. And that can be victims of domestic violence, victims of crime where they’re afraid to call the police because they’re afraid the police will ask them about their immigration status and detain them and deport them. Workers who want to sue an employer for not paying them, what if the employer decides to notify the government that some of these employees that are suing him are undocumented?
“I think those are the concerns going forward and again the lack of clarity about this . . . just leaves everybody wondering what’s going to happen to my mom and dad tomorrow, he added. “What’s going to happen to me tomorrow?”
Words Trump Fear
Judith Paz and Fernanda Herrera have, unbeknownst to the them, shared a very similar life trajectory. Both are 22-year-old DACA recipients who were born 300 miles apart in Mexico and moved with their parents to Alabama. Neither saw their parents much growing up because they each worked two jobs to provide for their families. Herrera is a senior majoring in international relations at Samford University where she expects to graduate in May and has applied for DACA since high school. Neither have been back to Mexico since arriving in the United States as children, though they would like to once they become citizens.
Last week, Herrera, who became interested in politics after a summer spent interning for the House of Representatives, was on Capitol Hill — the “Hill” as she called it, with polished ease — meeting with Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-New Mexico), who serves as the Whip of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Herrera and her two associates were meeting with the congresswoman as part of an advocacy visit on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “She told the three of us that were standing there that we should all run for office,” Herrera recounted. “The two guys that were with me kind of looked at me, because they know I’m undocumented and I was probably going to say something.”
Herrera said she has made it a point recently to speak out as much as possible whenever the moment calls for it. “I looked at her and told her, ‘I’d love to, but I’m not a citizen’ and this really stern look came over her face. I could tell that connected with her. There are so many people that would love to be of service to this country, but we aren’t able to do so. I’ve lived here my whole life.”
With the raids and ongoing verbal assaults on people who look like her, Herrera said, it’s been “difficult to connect with people who haven’t experienced what I’ve been through,” the inherent alienation felt by millions of immigrants who no longer feel welcome while living and working in a country founded by immigrants.
Encountering that divide, Herrera said, reminded her why she wants to get into politics once she becomes a citizen. “Today it could be the Native Americans, and tomorrow it could be me,” she said. “The next day it could be the African-American community. If we don’t stand up for each other when times get rough, there’s not going to be anyone left here.” What scares her the most, she said, is imagining a future in which people like her no longer have a voice in America.