Advice to illegal migrants: “Keep your head down as much as you can”

Undocumented people in the United States are fearful of Trump's new deportation rules

Immigration officers detain a suspected undocumented migrant on February 7 in Los Angeles.
Immigration officers detain a suspected undocumented migrant on February 7 in Los Angeles.AP
Pablo Ximénez de Sandoval

The morning that Donald Trump changed their lives, José Eduardo Paz and Raúl García were waiting at their usual spot in the parking lot of a Home Depot store in south Los Angeles in the hope of picking up a few hours of work. Paz, a Honduran national, has been in the United States for 14 years, while Mexican García has lived here for 26 years.

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“Pasen desapercibidos lo mejor que puedan”

Neither have residency or work permits, but both have children born in the United States. They say they have been detained a few times over the years by the police, and then released because they have not committed any serious offenses and are clearly established in the city. But next time, they say, things will be different.

President Trump has put the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States “on notice,” meaning that being picked up by the police could lead to a swift deportation with no appeal.

Obama deported a whole bunch of people, but he wasn’t as abusive José Eduardo Paz, undocumented immigrant in Los Angeles

“People feel more persecuted and unsafe,” says 38-year-old Paz. “Before this, I could fly with my passport to Miami to see my brother. I had work in Las Vegas on weekends and on Monday morning I could be back here.” He says that since the roundups began, “I daren’t go, in case there are checkpoints at the California border. This has taken my freedom away.”

Under the Trump administration, US immigration law hasn’t changed per se, but is instead being applied more stringently via a presidential executive order and a memorandum published on Tuesday that has confirmed the worst fears of undocumented immigrants. “Obama deported a whole bunch of people, but he wasn’t as abusive,” says Paz. “With Obama, you had to do something wrong. Now they can deport you for whatever reason.”

Raúl García and José Eduardo Paz on Tuesday morning in Los Angeles.
Raúl García and José Eduardo Paz on Tuesday morning in Los Angeles.

On February 9, a woman living in Arizona with three children was deported despite having committed no other offense than working with a fake Social Security number. Her case was not even heard by a judge. As Paz and García point out: “They can deport all of us, because everybody has done that to be able to work.”

Saúl Cabello, an immigration legal adviser working in Los Angeles, says that after reading the presidential memorandum it is clear that anybody without papers who is picked up by the police will no longer be released on parole pending a hearing. “People are going to be arrested and deported,” he says, adding: “Be more careful than ever before. Keep your head down as much as you can.”

Immigration lawyer Álex Gálvez says Trump’s memorandum gives immigration officers a wider margin than before in deciding who to deport. “Before this, immigration officers on the street could decide not to process you if they detained you. But now, anybody who falls into the hands of immigration has to be processed. Officers have no discretion. Your fate is in the hands of the judge.”

Regarding expedited deportation without a court order, Gálvez thinks that “that’s not going to be possible.”

“It’s a violation of due process. People have the right to fight their deportation, it’s a constitutional right. If Trump doesn’t honor those rights we’re going to have a lot of complaints,” says Gálvez.

Saúl Cabello, immigration adviser, with Trump's new rules.
Saúl Cabello, immigration adviser, with Trump's new rules.P. X. S.

But Gálvez says he is concerned about the “dangerous language” within the memorandum, allowing immigration officers to arrest somebody if they have “reasonable” grounds for suspicion, which he says will encourage racial profiling, a practice that was ruled illegal when Trump’s friend Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, introduced it in 2010.

“It seems to give a free hand to counties and cities prepared to take part in deportations, a green light for the police to act as immigration officers. The federal government has given a green light to all the Arpaios in the United States.”

Back at Home Depot, a police patrol drives into the parking lot, and after a moments it leaves again. “Sometimes they say hi,” says Paz. Local police officers in big cities with large undocumented populations do not arrest people just because they do not have papers. This is what Trump wants to change, says Gálvez, and he is calling on the country’s security forces to collaborate in helping carry out mass deportations.

The millions of other undocumented immigrants like Paz and García know that from now on, they will have to be more careful. Keeping out of the way of the police is nothing new. The danger now is that the authorities will come actively looking for them in the Home Depot parking lot, where they can easily be found.

García says he has lived through four different administrations, each with its own migratory policy, which gives him a certain perspective. “I have faith that nothing is going to happen. I’ve been here for 26 years. Trump will be around for four. When he goes, we’ll still be here.”

English version by Nick Lyne.

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