The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With White House threatening mass raids, undocumented immigrants try to stay out of sight

CASA activists speak with Raúl Zendejas as they canvass door-to-door on June 18, 2019, in Woodbridge, Va., to talk to people about their rights in the event of a federal immigration raid. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)

A Salvadoran widower who came to this country as a child no longer visits the post office or other government buildings. A Guatemalan mother of two hasn’t left her home in suburban Maryland, except to buy necessities, since hearing about President Trump’s tweet late Monday.

The president’s proclamation — that federal agents soon will start rounding up families in the country illegally and deporting them by the thousands — has accelerated the fear that has built for more than two years among the nation’s estimated 10.5 million undocumented residents, according to immigrants, advocates and public officials.

Parents are vowing to keep their children out of summer programs. Shopping trips are consolidated to limit driving. Migrants without papers are avoiding large crowds and minimizing going out at night and even attending church.

“It terrorizes me very much to hear that they’re going to do mass raids,” said Yadira, the Guatemalan mother in Prince George’s. Like other undocumented immigrants interviewed, she declined to give her full name.

“If I drive, the police can stop me for any small reason, and they’ll see I don’t have documents and they’ll arrest me,” she said. “Thank God the school year is over for my oldest son, because now I don’t have to go out so much.”

Lee esta nota en español: To read this story in Spanish, click here

For months, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials had been planning large-scale raids targeting families but were taken aback when Trump announced that the action was imminent.

Despite limited detention space and federal personnel, the government says men, women and children with final orders of deportation will be swept up in major metropolitan areas across the country — a highly visible attempt to stanch an unprecedented flow of families across the southern border and discourage would-be migrants from traveling north.

In the Washington area, where most local governments are protective of undocumented residents, many public officials are vowing not to cooperate with federal raids.

“We welcome immigrants and the vibrancy they bring to our jurisdictions,” said a joint statement issued Thursday by Baltimore Mayor Jack Young (D) and the Democratic county executives of Maryland’s five largest counties, including Marc Elrich of Montgomery County and Angela D. Alsobrooks of Prince George’s. “We stand together in embracing diversity, and our police departments and agency employees will continue to work to ensure that everyone’s civil rights are respected.”

Advocates are expanding “Know Your Rights” seminars and visiting homes in heavily immigrant neighborhoods, passing out fliers in Spanish and other foreign languages that explain what to do if immigration agents approach.

Trump vows mass immigration arrests, removal of ‘millions of illegal aliens’

“People are really frightened,” said Hallie Ryan, the managing attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Northern Virginia, which joined other groups this week to urge local officials not to cooperate with ICE.

“An operation like the one President Trump tweeted about is not done without local cooperation,” Ryan said. “And local governments have the power to not cooperate with something that serves only to terrorize their local communities.”

The group visited a heavily immigrant apartment complex in Annandale on Thursday, advising about two dozen residents not to let strangers inside their building or share any personal details.

“It would be easier if you don’t even answer their questions and just say: ‘I’m sorry, I’m busy,’ ” said Nicholas Marritz, an attorney also with the Legal Aid Justice Center. “The best protection we have when we’re confronted by immigration agents is silence.”

A Honduran woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity said she had been hunkered down in her stuffy apartment since hearing about Trump’s announcement. “It feels like we’re prisoners,” she said.

In a suburban classroom, learning to parent the sons she left behind

After seeing Trump’s tweet, Maryland Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s) texted other Latino officials in the county asking: “What can we do to get in front of it?” They immediately knew what she meant.

Officials in the Washington suburb, where the foreign-born population has nearly doubled since 2000, are working on legislation to limit the participation of local police in immigration matters and prevent discrimination against undocumented immigrants or the denial of services by county agencies.

“We are trying to walk a fine line that helps people prepare but not cause a panic,” said Brandon Wu, an organizer with the D.C.-based group Sanctuary DMV, which vocally denounced ICE operations last summer that resulted in the arrest and deportation of 12 District residents.

“The mere threat of these raids can really wreak havoc in immigrant families,” Wu said. “Because all of a sudden they are afraid to do things they have to do to live their everyday lives.”

Immigration lawyer Hassan M. Ahmad said one client of his awaiting approval of a U visa, which is reserved for victims of domestic violence, contacted him in a panic Tuesday, worried that Trump’s tweet about the raids meant the application would be revoked.

“Nobody knows what to expect,” said Ahmad, who works in Loudoun County, Va. “We still have a legal system, we still have a system of laws. But it’s been hard to give them any sense of peace.”

Julia Toro, a lawyer in the District, said she worries that people will start leaving the country voluntarily, even when they have strong claims for asylum.

“That’s what happened with TPS,” said Toro, referring to the Trump administration’s unsuccessful attempt to terminate temporary protected status for immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. So people need to be well-informed.”

A weekly legal clinic in Langley Park, Md., offered by the Maryland-based immigrant advocacy group CASA was relatively quiet Tuesday, but advocates expect that to change. In the lobby of the refurbished mansion that serves as CASA’s headquarters, three women waited for their turn with a lawyer.

“My prevailing fear is being separated from my children,” said a young mother from Peru who was breast-feeding her infant son. She entered the United States illegally two years ago and said she rethinks that decision each time she watches the news. She doesn’t take her children to the park anymore and rarely ventures out.

How falling coffee prices are driving migration to the United States

Sitting across from her was Carmen, a 31-year-old Salvadoran who crossed the southern U.S. border on June 1. Trump’s threats regularly make news in her home country, she said. But they didn’t deter her from coming, and she said she would make the same decision again if given the chance.

“We are suffering so much that we weigh the risk against his words, but the choice is always the same,” she said. “There is still hope that things are better here.”

Advocates are helping families delegate authority to others to care for their children if they are arrested, CASA attorney Nick Katz said, and identifying safe places to which they can go if they feel threatened. Immigrants are memorizing the telephone numbers of advocates and attorneys.

“Versus what has been a floating anxiety during the past few years, there is now an acute fear,” said Austin Almaguer, co-chair of Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement and pastor of the Vienna Baptist Church in Fairfax County, where 1 in 3 residents are foreign-born. He said some of the group’s undocumented members have told him they would not allow their children to attend summer camp or even go to the local library.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova (D) called Trump’s tweet “cruel” and said that officials will make sure people are aware of a new $200,000 legal-aid program and that local police officers have nothing to do with ICE.

“Whether people are here legally, not legally or somewhere in between, it’s important that people trust Fairfax County law enforcement to keep the community safe,” she said.

But in neighboring Prince William County, Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R), an ardent Trump supporter, said his county will do all it can to help ICE make arrests.

At the same time, Stewart, who lost races for Virginia governor and U.S. senator in the past two years, said Trump should focus on deporting undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes unrelated to their immigration status.

At a center for day laborers in Langley Park, Jesús, 37, the widower from Silver Spring, Md.,said he’s been “reading everything” about Trump’s plans “and paying attention to every story.”

He has developed a plan for his U.S.-born children in case he is arrested, and he avoids government buildings, large crowds and law enforcement at all costs. “I get sad and sick from thinking about this all the time and anticipating ‘la migra,’ ” he said, using a Spanish term for U.S. immigration officials.

Aime Tchemeni, a journalist from West Africa who is seeking asylum, watched news of Trump’s tweet early Tuesday and said he was overwhelmed with grief.

“The president needs to understand that he’s not hurting just one person,” said Tchemeni, who was also at the day laborers’ site and asked that the name of his country not be published because he feared retribution from its government. “He is hurting entire families and entire communities around the world.”

Trump vows mass immigration arrests, removal of ‘millions of illegal aliens’

Despite pledge to deport millions, ICE’s ability to do so is limited

Deported, divided: How a mom’s return to El Salvador tore her family in two

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news