VALLEY VIEW, Tex. — At 4:30 a.m. on a windy Monday, Tamara Estes swallows vitamin B12 for energy and krill oil for her arthritic fingers. Even with her nightly Ambien, she is always up before the sun, getting ready for a job that reminds her of what infuriates her about America.
She drives a school bus on a route that winds through a North Texas neighborhood filled with undocumented Mexicans. She picks up nearly 100 of their children and drops them off at public schools funded by American taxpayers. By her.
One immigrant family lives in the house next door, and in the dark hours before dawn, they are also stirring. As the father leaves for his job at a construction site, the mother is scrambling eggs and scooping them into warm tortillas.
They have been working in America for two decades without legal status, but their four children were born here, so they are U.S. citizens — or, as Estes and President Trump call them, “anchor babies.”
The eldest, Rainier Corral, 15, emerges from his bedroom carrying a book bag and a trumpet case. He’s a 188-pound rock of a kid who plays lineman on the high school football team, a top-notch student who wants to study mechanical engineering at Texas A&M.
Rainier’s family has always believed in the promise of America, where they saved enough to buy their own home and their kids go to good schools. But now that Trump is threatening to deport millions — and even change the law that gave their children U.S. citizenship — they are filled with fear.
Estes chats with Karisa Bean at Grace Bible Church in Sanger, Tex. Estes strongly backs President Trump’s deportation drive.
Estes, meanwhile, is filled with new hope. For years, she has felt she was living the American Dream in reverse, her life sliding backward, in part, she believes, because illegal immigrants take all the good jobs and drive up her taxes. Now she thinks her life will improve because Trump is promising to “take our country back.”
This is what divides them at the dawn of the Trump era: for the president to keep his promise to millions of working-class white voters like Estes, he is threatening millions of working-class immigrants like the family next door.
It’s 20 miles to the school-bus depot and, as Estes drives, she flips on conservative talk radio, where she gets most of her news. She tunes to 660 AM and Mark Davis, a popular Texas talker, who is praising Trump, trashing liberals and making Estes nostalgic for better days.
“I wish we could go back to a time when we could live, not just exist, when everything wasn’t a struggle,” she says.
Estes is 59, divorced and earns $24,000 a year. With four days left to payday, she has $118.72 in her checking account.
She earns a bit too much to qualify for most government assistance but too little to buy health insurance, with its high monthly premiums and impossible deductibles. When she broke her arm last year, she wrapped it in a $15 drugstore brace and popped ibuprofen for a month.
The way she sees it, life is easier for illegal Mexican immigrants than for taxpaying, working-class white Americans. As her life has gotten harder, she believes the fortunes of “illegals” have been rising, and that she’s paying for it. Little galls her more than “anchor babies,” who are entitled to government benefits, including Medicaid, public schools and food assistance.
Estes resents paying for their safety net when she feels she has none.
“I can’t seem to pull my status back up where it was 20 years ago,” she says. “Some of it’s my fault. Some of it’s not.”
U.S.-born Rainier Corral, 15, does chores at home on a Sunday last month in Valley View, Tex.
The United States has been granting “birthright citizenship” to babies born on its soil, regardless of their parents’ legal status, since just after the Civil War. Congress and the states adopted the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in 1868, primarily to guarantee citizenship to freed slaves.
Over the past three decades, every other developed economy in the world except Canada has abandoned or restricted birthright citizenship amid rising flows of immigrants and refugees. But in America, it remains commonplace. In 2014, 7 percent of all U.S. births — about 275,000 babies — were to parents illegally in the United States, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
In Texas, undocumented immigrants accounted for a quarter of all deliveries paid for by Medicaid in 2015 — more than 54,000 babies — according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. The cost to taxpayers: $116 million.
Defenders of birthright citizenship say integrating immigrants is part of what makes the United States exceptional, and that denying these babies citizenship would create a huge new underclass of people living outside the law. Critics say it encourages illegal immigration and drains public resources.
Estes was delighted when Trump attacked birthright citizenship during the campaign, saying: “A woman gets pregnant. She’s nine months, she walks across the border, she has the baby in the United States, and we take care of the baby for 85 years. I don’t think so.”
Polls show that the vast majority of Americans oppose mass deportations, but Trump’s core supporters are solidly for it: According to a recent CNN/Kaiser poll, 55 percent of whites without college degrees said they want everyone living in the country illegally to be deported.
Everywhere Estes looks, she’s reminded that her country is changing. White enrollment in Texas schools recently dipped below 30 percent. Hispanics are the new majority; Pew estimates that more than 13 percent of Texas students are the children of undocumented parents.
Estes wants a better-paying job but says it’s hard to get one these days if you speak only English. Increasingly, the first question in any job interview is, “Habla español?”
So when Trump started talking about deporting illegal immigrants who “compete directly against vulnerable American workers,” Estes went to his rallies and stuck a Trump sign on her lawn. She has come to be known as the “Trump Lady” on her school bus, which on this Monday morning approaches its first rider, a tiny kindergartner bundled in a gray parka and wearing a purple backpack.
“Love you!” the little girl says in English to her Spanish-speaking mother.
For two hours, Estes picks up dozens of children. They chatter in the seats behind her in Spanish, a language she doesn’t understand. She boils inside about her tax dollars paying for their education. But she likes the kids, and she can’t afford to lose this job. So she smiles and says, over and over:
“Careful on the stairs.”
“Have a good day, y’all.”
Cost and contribution
As Estes heads to work, Rainier is in the kitchen next door, checking his phone for news.
“Quieres café?” his mother, Azucena Reyes, 34, asks him, as she stirs eggs on the stove.
“No, thanks,” he says in English, waving off coffee to check the Young Turks news site on YouTube, where today’s headline is: “Trump’s Deportation Force Unleashed.”
Rainier was born four months after Reyes, then 18, entered the United States on a tourist visa hoping to give her child a better life than the one he would have faced in her poor mining town in Durango, Mexico.
He has always felt fully American, no different from his white classmates. But now, in this county that voted 83 percent for Trump, he suddenly hears people spitting out: “Go back to your own country,” or “Go mow a lawn.”
Rainier practices the guitar at his home. He and his family feel undocumented immigrants have been unfairly blamed for the economic problems of working-class Americans.
Rumors about deportations are flying. Reyes heard from a friend that immigration agents were arresting people at Walmart. Others say it was at a different store. Or at roadblocks.
The family stays home more often now but still went to church yesterday, joining 1,400 others at a Spanish-language Catholic Mass. Their pastor says many more are choosing to skip Mass, worried that federal agents might stake out the church.
Reyes is worried, too, but said she and her family agreed to be interviewed for this story because they want people to better understand the immigrants who are being threatened with deportation. Amid so much “uncertainty and fear,” she says, “I hope we can do some good.”
What’s happening now doesn’t seem fair to Rainier. Americans hire the undocumented to build their houses, pick their crops, mow their lawns, wash their dishes. They're happy to take the hard, low-paying jobs nobody else wants. In return, they’d like to live without fear of being deported. Rainier believes families like his are being targeted for problems they have not created.
“Most of them are just normal people that are trying to get a better way of life,” Rainier says. “It’s one thing to deport people who have criminal records — that’s fine. It’s another thing to deport families that haven’t done anything wrong.”
From her home, Estes can see the U.S.-born son of her Mexican neighbors washing the family car.
Trump has argued that undocumented immigrants take jobs from American workers, depress wages and overburden government services. Studies have partially confirmed that view, at least in the short term.
Last year, an exhaustive study by the respected National Academies of Sciences found that undocumented workers can temporarily depress wages slightly for the lowest category of unskilled jobs. But the study found “little to no negative effects on overall wages and employment of native-born workers in the longer term.”
The same study said that newly arrived immigrants are a net cost to taxpayers, primarily due to the expense of educating their children. But those children, and their children after them, more than make up for it, contributing far more in taxes to state and local governments than they take in services.
Most economists do not blame illegal immigrants for the decline of the U.S. working class. They argue that immigrants boost the nation’s fortunes by filling undesirable jobs at low pay, cutting the cost of many goods and services.
Rainier’s parents have worked for years cleaning homes, working in a glue factory, installing bathroom partitions, nailing baseboards. Four years ago, they pooled their life savings to buy their little house, paying $40,000 in cash at a foreclosure sale.
They now pay $1,700 a year in property tax. They file federal returns on income of about $30,000 in a good year, including withholdings for Social Security and Medicare — benefits they are unlikely ever to receive.
Nationwide, undocumented immigrants pay about $11.7 billion a year in state and local income, sales and property taxes, including about $1.5 billion in Texas, according to the nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. And more than 4 million people who do not have Social Security numbers — most of them undocumented immigrants — file federal tax returns using Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers issued by the Internal Revenue Service.
Rainier’s family has been trying for two decades to become legal. Since 1997, his father, Nicolas Nevarez, 38, has had an application pending for a resident visa through his father, an undocumented worker granted U.S. citizenship under Ronald Reagan’s 1986 amnesty program.
Last year, the United States issued only 801 visas in his category — a Mexican married adult child of a U.S. citizen — out of a waiting list of more than 204,000. His lawyer tells him to be patient.
Rainier, who is an athlete at his high school, lifts his little sister so she can see aquarium fishes at a store in Denton, Tex.
“I’m trying to do everything right,” Nevarez says. “But 20 years?”
Nevarez and Reyes have no health insurance and constantly worry about getting sick, although their children are eligible for Medicaid. When Rainier needed knee surgery last year, it was fully covered.
Rainier’s parents tell him valora la oportunidad — appreciate the opportunity he has in America — and he does. But he has no idea how he will pay for college, so he is thinking that right after high school he will enlist in the U.S. Army.
“It’s my country and I want to serve,” he says, as he picks up his trumpet case and backpack and heads off to school.
Fallen from the middle class
After finishing her morning route, Estes parks her yellow school bus and clocks out. It’s 9 a.m. Her afternoon shift starts at 2:30. It would take too much gas to drive home and back, so she waits in the parking lot, unpaid, in her Honda Fit.
She eats a blueberry muffin out of a plastic bag and listens to the radio, where Mark Davis is praising Trump’s first weeks in office.
Estes thinks Trump is off to a great start. She wanted to high-five the new president when he said in his inaugural address, “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
She says it was as if Trump was speaking directly to her.
Estes grew up in Dallas, in a grand home with a built-in pool. She even had her own horse. Her mother died when she was 4, so she lived with her father, a small-business owner who drove a red Thunderbird convertible. Then her father died when she was 19. She quickly married and, by 26, was divorced with two kids.
Tamara Estes tends her chickens, whose eggs she feeds to her Doberman pinschers. She links her financial distress partly to what she sees as job competition from undocumented immigrants.
She has worked a lifetime of jobs that have paid less and less. She was a scrub tech at a medical clinic, a courier carrying blueprints for a developer, a shuttle driver for a casino. Years ago, she moved an hour north of Dallas, where she could afford a tiny house on a two-acre plot carved from a vast expanse of wheat fields.
Now she is almost 60, raised in upper-middle-class comfort and living in working-class stress.
Estes regrets not going to college and becoming a veterinarian. On the radio, she hears that good jobs for people with only a high school diploma have been stolen by globalization and automation: China and robots. She knows that it may take Trump more time to bring those jobs back.
But she’s thrilled that he is moving on his promise to kick out the “illegals.”
“They’ll be out of here so frickin’ fast!” Trump said at a Dallas campaign rally in September 2015, as Estes and 20,000 others cheered.
She’s also grateful that a president is finally talking about “anchor babies.”
Most legal scholars say that revoking birthright citizenship would take another constitutional amendment, a complicated process that requires two-thirds approval of both chambers of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the states.
Trump, however, has suggested simply challenging the prevailing interpretation in court. “Some very, very good lawyers” believe children of undocumented immigrants “do not have American citizenship,” he said during the campaign.
In January, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) reintroduced the Birthright Citizenship Act, which would grant citizenship to an infant only if at least one parent was a U.S. citizen, a lawful permanent resident or a noncitizen serving in the U.S. military.
Some Texas officials have pursued a backdoor approach to cutting benefits to the children of undocumented parents by limiting the forms of parental identification they will accept when issuing birth certificates. Without a birth certificate, a child cannot prove citizenship and therefore has no access to government benefits.
Estes, a supporter of President Trump, looks at her dog show awards and photos, reflecting on when “it was a happier time in life.”
After Mexican and Central American parents sued in federal court, Texas officials agreed last year to accept more forms of identification, including Mexican voter ID cards — but only after more than 1,000 babies were denied birth certificates, said Jennifer Harbury, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
“The anti-immigrant faction is definitely emboldened,” Harbury said.
Sitting in her car, Estes switches over to 820 AM, where Rush Limbaugh is singing her tune.
“Immigration is the primary reason Donald Trump was elected,” he says. “These ICE raids — people are applauding them!”
Alike but far apart
By the time Estes finishes her route and arrives back home, the sun has already set. Her headlights splash across her little house, and her dogs start barking. She breeds Doberman pinschers for extra cash.
Minutes later, Nevarez pulls into his driveway.
The daily routines are similar in these two small, prefabricated houses on a flat road paved into the North Texas prairie. Both families raise chickens and dogs, work long days for little pay and pray for better at church on Sunday.
In four years, the neighbors have barely spoken. Once, Nevarez and some other Mexican immigrants helped Estes dig a grave for one of her dogs. She seemed friendly enough. But then the Trump sign appeared on her lawn, and the distance between them grew.
At the kitchen table, Rainier, fresh from track practice, devours four enchiladas. His father eats a few bites. He’s tired and doesn’t say much. He spent the day on a 30-foot ladder, hanging shutters on houses. His hair is flecked with sawdust.
Next door, Estes is in her kitchen, too tired to cook. Sometimes she eats a few cheese cubes after her evening chores. But when she checks the fridge, there are none left.
She sinks into her recliner.
She says her opposition to “illegals” isn’t personal. She says that when she needs help around the house, her Hispanic neighbors offer before “my white neighbors do.” She says she doesn’t want the kids on her bus to think she is heartless for supporting deportation raids. But she says something has to change.
She flips on the TV. She has recorded eight hours of inauguration coverage on C-SPAN and a two-hour History Channel documentary on Trump, which she now starts watching.
“They are losers! They are babies!” Trump is shouting.
She laughs. He sure is entertaining.
Trump’s booming voice fills her small house: “The working class is going to strike back!”
“Yes,” Estes says. “Yes!”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.