More Illegal Immigrants Putting Affairs in Order

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A 30-year-old single mother from Manassas recently visited a notary public to formally arrange custody for her toddler son after she's gone.

It's deportation, not death, that has her worried.

With federal authorities stepping up raids and local police joining enforcement efforts, illegal immigrants and their advocates say that preparing for possible deportation is becoming a common feature of life in their underground world.

They are designating who should take custody of their children, indicating what should be done with cars and homes, ensuring that relatives have power of attorney to access bank accounts and key documents, and memorizing phone numbers they might need to call from jail. Some are sending their U.S.-born children for visits to their home countries so they could adapt more easily if the family is suddenly forced to move back.

For Catalina, being prepared meant a trip to the notary so her best friend would have appropriate paperwork to take custody of her year-old son and deliver him to Mexico if she were deported.

"I'm still nervous [about getting caught]," said Catalina, who, like other illegal immigrants interviewed, spoke on condition that her last name not be published. "But I feel a lot calmer knowing that whatever happens, I'll never lose my son to foster care."

In most cases, the planning is done informally through conversations like the one Cathy Lorena, a 21-year-old from El Salvador, had recently with her brother in the dining room of the colonial house they share in Herndon.

Although Cathy Lorena and her husband have been living illegally in the United States for three years, she said she started feeling insecure only a few months ago, after her husband was fired as an office cleaner when the company started checking workers' identity documents.

"You start to worry that someone at the company will call immigration on you," said Lorena, who works for a similar office cleaning firm and has a year-old son. "Every day you leave your baby to go to work, and you wonder if you're going to return."

Although Lorena had always assumed that her brother, who is a legal permanent resident, would take care of the child if she and her husband were detained, she suddenly felt it necessary to sit down with her brother and spell that out.

"I wanted to make sure he knows things like who my son's doctor is, where the babysitter lives, and that he's the person we would want to be in charge," she said.

Although Lorena did not sign any legal forms, illegal immigrants in the area are increasingly making their precautions official. Jay Marks, a Silver Spring-based immigration lawyer who has become well known in the Washington Latino community through his appearances on Spanish-language radio, said he gets two or three calls a week from illegal immigrants seeking advice on how to give their arrangements legal force.

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