New Orleans Undocumented Families Fear Deportations with Executive Order

Feb 2, 2017

Last night, Mayor Mitch Landrieu attended the weekly meeting hosted by the Congress of Day Laborers, a group that advocates for immigrant rights. Among the executive orders Donald Trump signed last week, one called  for more federal immigration officers and widened the scope of who they could deport. It also encouraged local law enforcement to work closely with ICE agents. Landrieu assured the assembly that the city will continue to leave deportation to federal officials, and not involve local police. But many undocumented immigrants still feel uncertain about their future in New Orleans. Nina Feldman has this story of one Latin American family.

About 10 years ago, Maria came to New Orleans from Belize, for a marriage that didn’t work out. She stayed. And then she met Juan. He had come from Honduras for work. Back home, he lived in deep poverty, worked tirelessly and still couldn’t feed himself or his mother. We’re not using their last names because they are in the U.S. undocumented. They have two kids, both born here.  Maria says, they’re not leeching off the government, like a lot of people assume.

“We’ve never gotten any government aid, we pay our taxes and we’ve just tried to be good, productive citizens. We love this country, we love this city.”

But since Maria and Juan entered the US unauthorized, they have no easy path to citizenship.  So, they live life under the radar.

“You know, I take my kids to school I volunteer at their school, I do this, but it’s like in your own little world until something happens …”

Something did happen. This past September, Juan gave a friend a ride to the immigration office, when he himself was detained. He had an outstanding deportation order, which he didn’t know about. Juan got a court date, and an ankle bracelet to monitor his location until his hearing.  Maria says the ankle bracelet was scary, but they didn’t panic. They thought Hillary Clinton would win the White House, and create options for undocumented parents of US-born kids.

“We thought you know, for sure when we have a new president they’re going to look at us differently and we might be able to become documented,” she said. On election night, everything changed. Maria was ill the night before the election, so she went to bed early without knowing the results. She woke up early, and turned on the TV. “I saw that Mr. Trump had won and I was just crying and crying and crying and couldn’t control myself,” she remembers. 

Maria was afraid the new president would start deporting people right away. And that Juan would be a target, because he already had the ankle bracelet. She had heard about the Congress of Day Laborers, a group that advocates for immigrant rights. She talked to organizers there, and they were able to help her negotiate and get Juan’s ankle monitor removed. He had it for four months, ten days and 19 hours.

Juan has been granted a stay on his deportation - meaning he’s supposed to leave the country on his own in the next six months. But because he’s a dad of US citizen kids, and the family breadwinner...it’s possible the court would let him stay. With the new administration, though, it’s unclear how likely that is.

Each week, the Congress of Day Laborers attracts hundreds of people with problems just like Maria and Juan. They meet in a church. They chant, “no papers, no fear!” as a sort of rallying cry. Today’s meeting is a workshop to teach members about their constitutional rights. Four actors play out a scene for the crowd: One is an ICE officer, and three more play a family inside a house. The ICE officer knocks on the door.

The little kid begs his dad not to open the door. The wife agrees. The officer says he only wants to ask them some questions. The husband opens the door and the ICE agent asks for his documentation. He can’t provide it, so he’s handcuffed as the little kid wails.

This whole moment is kind of surreal. The church is packed, and the whole crowd is cracking up - a grown man is crying like a baby, really hamming it up, and it’s funny. But at the same time, many of the people in this room have faced - or could face - this exact situation: their kids watching as they get arrested.

The takeaway? Don’t open the door.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu reaffirmed that NOPD will not ask for immigration papers when people get arrested, or when police question witnesses. The whole point of that policy is to increase trust between residents and local law enforcement - to keep people from being afraid to answer the door. But Trump’s executive order calls for more federal ICE agents on the ground. Hiroko Kusuda is an immigration attorney at Loyola Law Clinic.

“If numbers increase, of course I think they’re gonna go after more people. They might have more time on their hands to do more raids,” she guesses.

The executive order says even people charged but not convicted with crimes should be considered criminals. It says a simple immigration violation alone -- no other crime committed -- could be enough to deport someone. But Kusuda says, more detainees will mean many months before a court date. And the system has long waits already. She says New Orleans has over 7200 cases right now, for one judge.

The recent executive order also opens up the door for ICE agents to deport people without a hearing in some cases. Kusuda is advising undocumented immigrants to have a plan for the worst case scenario. She says she tells her clients to remember the phone number of one person they trust and write a letter to children’s schools with a contingency plan, in case they disappear

Maria says she and Juan are afraid. They’re keeping to themselves a lot more.

“I told my husband the other day, i guess this is what being hopeless means - having no hope. Like we were planning on going for spring break to visit some friends in Tennessee, now we’re not doing that. So I told my husband, so the next four years we can’t do anything! We can’t leave the city with our kids because we’re afraid to travel?”

She knows that may be true someday, but it feels very distant.