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Undocumented immigrants enter ‘survival mode’ in Sacramento as deportation threat grows

This 39-year-old mother of three, who emigrated from Mexico 17 years ago, is one of many undocumented residents in Sacramento living in fear of deportation. “We are trying to be prepared for any situation,” she said.
This 39-year-old mother of three, who emigrated from Mexico 17 years ago, is one of many undocumented residents in Sacramento living in fear of deportation. “We are trying to be prepared for any situation,” she said. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Undocumented immigrants in Sacramento are selling their furniture and cars to rid themselves of bulky items in case they’re deported. Those who have money set aside are sending it to loved ones in Mexico or Central America, convinced that the U.S. government will seize their cash to help build a southern border wall.

For some families, daily routines have been scaled back to essential trips only: The kids get dropped off at school and groceries are purchased, at least on days when rumors aren’t flying on Facebook about immigration agents raiding the market down the street. When families do leave home, they often carry “know your rights” cards printed from the websites of national immigration law centers that include what they should and shouldn’t say to authorities if they’re detained.

“We are trying to be prepared for any situation,” said a 39-year-old mother of three who traveled to the United States from Mexico nearly 17 years ago and is living here illegally.

Undocumented residents in the Sacramento area say they feel a sense of inevitability that they’ll be hauled away by immigration agents and sent back over the border. Those fears are being fueled by inaccurate reports on social media of massive immigration sweeps and mixed messages from the Trump administration on whom it intends to target for deportation.

Like his predecessors in office, President Donald Trump has often said he wants to focus on purging the nation of undocumented immigrants who commit serious crimes. Last week, he said his administration had already deported “really bad dudes” and “drug lords.” Speaking in Mexico, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly insisted there would be “no mass deportations” and that the process would be done “according to human rights and the legal justice system of the United States.”

But just a few days earlier, Kelly signed a series of memos detailing how the administration will implement the president’s executive orders on illegal immigration, outlining a strategy that represents a clear escalation over the tactics used by previous administrations. Kelly wrote his department “no longer will exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.” He also provided seven priority categories for undocumented immigrants, including those merely suspected of posing a risk to public safety and others who have “abused any program related to receipt of public benefits.”

Undocumented immigrants, attorneys and people who work closely with immigrant families told The Sacramento Bee that Trump’s orders have paralyzed the region’s immigrant community. Frightened people are calling their attorneys several times a day, families are in “survival mode” and young parents are hiring notaries public to prepare letters detailing what should be done with their children should they be deported. An estimated 60,000 undocumented immigrants lived in the Sacramento region in 2014, according to a study by the nonpartisan research group the Pew Research Center.

For the undocumented mother of three – whom The Bee is not naming because she fears it will draw the focus of immigration agents – the daily accounts of raids and the sometimes conflicting messages coming out of the White House have created a stressful, confusing new reality.

“We believe (the government) is not making any separation between the criminals and the people who just came here to work, like us,” she said.

The woman, who lives in Sacramento, immigrated illegally to the United States from the Mexican state of Jalisco on the Pacific Coast. Her husband, who works as a day laborer in construction around Sacramento, came here 22 years ago, when he was 15. He was deported several years ago while trying to re-enter the United States after attending his grandfather’s funeral in Mexico, stoking fears in the family that he will again be targeted for deportation.

“He’s not a bad guy,” the woman said of her husband. If he is deported, “we all have to go back.”

The mother brought her 1-year-old son with her when she crossed the border. The couple have since had two children, and both are U.S. citizens: an 11-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy.

In preparation for possible deportation, the woman and her husband said they intend to help their older children apply for Mexican citizenship. That would make it easier, she said, to get the kids enrolled in schools in Mexico if they are forced to return to her native country.

“I’m scared about what can happen with my kids in Mexico,” she said. “I don’t feel safe there. There is a lot of people kidnapping and the government is not doing anything to stop that.”

The woman said she and her husband are also planning to hire a notary public to sign a letter requesting that a U.S. citizen friend be granted custody of the children in the event that she and her husband are deported. But even as they make arrangements, the family wants desperately to remain here.

Sacramento teacher Christina Marie Martinez said some undocumented parents she works with have kept their young children home, fearful of leaving the house and getting pulled over by police. Others are determined to keep their older children in school in part because they “don’t want any red flags” with the authorities. Martinez teaches in the child development department at three Sacramento public schools, working with parents to help prepare their young children for elementary school.

“Many have chosen to limit how much they’re out and about and are really just constraining themselves to a very small area in their neighborhood,” she said. “Survival mode is kicking in.”

Martinez said inaccurate posts on Facebook and other social media platforms warning people about raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have added to the anxiety. Last week alone, rumors swirled on social media that ICE agents were conducting a raid at La Superior Mercado in Woodland. A separate rumor had the raid happening at El Torito Meat Market less than two miles away. Neither was true.

“Some families are already disconnected and get their news from Facebook, then someone posts there’s a raid at 24th and Florin (in south Sacramento) and panic floods the community,” she said. “They don’t go through the steps to verify.”

ICE has organized several large-scale enforcement actions around the country in recent weeks, arresting hundreds of undocumented immigrants the agency said were threats to the public. ICE spokesman James Schwab said he was not aware of large-scale sweeps in the Sacramento area. He forwarded an agency statement that said “rumors of indiscriminate ‘raids,’ checkpoints and sweeps throughout Northern California are false, dangerous and irresponsible.”

Holly S. Cooper, co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the UC Davis School of Law, said misunderstandings about the deportation process are likely fueling the anxiety. Common defenses for undocumented immigrants facing deportation include proving they have been in the country for at least 10 years, are seeking political asylum, or have been victims of a crime.

“There’s a misconception that if immigration (enforcement) picks you up that they’ll take you back within a week. That’s not how it works,” she said. “You have a right to a defense, a right to a lawyer and the majority win their cases.”

Felicia Martinez and her husband, Marco Meza, are hopeful their family will be kept intact. Martinez is Christina Marie’s sister and a U.S. citizen raised in Sacramento. Her husband came to the U.S. from Mexico 12 years ago without documentation and works in Brooklyn, N.Y., as a day laborer specializing in interior home renovations. The couple have a 7-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son who were both born in the U.S.

In a few months, Meza anticipates meeting with the U.S. consul general in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, for his final appointment in a two-year process seeking permanent U.S. residency. Until that time, Meza is being cautious: He didn’t join his wife on a trip this week to Sacramento, opting to stay home in Brooklyn. He has also “scaled back on unnecessary trips out of the house after dark,” Martinez said.

“He doesn’t want to get caught up now that we’re in the final stages,” she said.

In the meantime, the couple have consolidated their financial paperwork and other documents and have made sure their children have their passports, in case they need to travel on short notice.

“I know my kids are going to be fine, there are things we don’t have to take into consideration (as U.S. citizens),” Martinez said. “But it’s definitely anxiety-inducing. Knowing the level of enforcement is going to be increasing, there is a need to feel more prepared.”

California State University undocumented students attended a forum at Sacramento State on Jan. 23, 2017 to discuss how federal changes could affect them.

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis

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