In a school cafeteria adorned with whimsical children’s artwork, the men and women hunched over thick packets of paper one recent night, fiddling with pen caps and rubbing their foreheads as they confronted a challenge: preparing for what happens if immigration agents show up at the door.
Some at this clinic in Northern Virginia were undocumented, and others had relatives in that situation. Some had legal status but were not permanent residents, and they wondered what shifts in federal immigration policy would mean for them and their relatives.
Juan Torres, a carpenter from Honduras and father of four, has temporary protected status, but he has family members who are undocumented.
“Of course, I was very worried, because the majority of my family doesn’t have documents, and at any moment they could be arrested or detained,” Torres said.
He was one of about two dozen people who came to William Ramsay Elementary School in Alexandria to learn about their rights while President Trump moves to tighten immigration enforcement and speed up deportations.
Recent arrests in Alexandria and elsewhere have heightened stress. A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “sensitive location” policy restricts enforcement actions at schools and churches. But agents last month arrested homeless men who had just left a church warming shelter in nearby Fairfax County and a father in Los Angeles who had just dropped his daughter off at school.
With anxiety rising in immigrant communities, educators and parents are taking steps to allay fears. The PTA at Ramsay Elementary sponsored the March 22 clinic, supplying pizza and providing volunteers to care for children of those who came to hear from immigration lawyers and other experts.
About a quarter of Alexandria’s residents in 2010 were foreign-born, census data shows. Hundreds of unaccompanied minors, many of whom fled violence in Central America, have entered the United States in recent years without parents and landed in the city’s schools. Students in Alexandria hail from more than 130 countries. Hallways at Ramsay Elementary display dozens of flags to show international spirit.
Alexandria schools have given resources to counselors and social workers to help immigrant students who may face increasing stress at home. They have also posted information about the city’s position on immigration policy in school hallways in four languages. The city emphasizes that police officers do not check immigration status during routine patrols and that schools provide education to all children, regardless of status.
At the clinic, participants who checked in were given numbers that they wore on colored name tags so they could ask questions and meet with lawyers without others knowing their identities. They received packets on topics such as “What to do in the event of a raid.”
Lawyer Amy Cheung showed a short video portraying encounters between undocumented immigrants and immigration authorities — at a clothing factory, in a home and during a traffic stop. At the factory, a seamstress tearfully admitted that she entered the country illegally, and she was taken away. Another man tried to run. A third displayed a bright card indicating that he intended to not answer any questions until he spoke to his attorney.
“It’s more important to be silent — to maintain silence — than to respond to their questions about what kind of documents you have,” Cheung said.
Cheung and paralegal Chelsea Naylor also explored possible strategies for an encounter with immigration authorities. Cheung advised not answering the door if ICE agents come knocking. She also advised training family members, including children, to do the same.
“If ICE officers knock on the door, and you just don’t open the door — you maintain silence, you don’t say anything — what’s going to happen to you?” asked one man. “They’re not going to break the door, nothing like that?”
“They would have to have a warrant,” Cheung said.
Another man asked what happens if parents are deported. Does the government take their children? Or do they get to go with the parents? The question underscored the dilemma facing mixed-status families, where parents might be undocumented but their children — born in the United States — are citizens.
“You as a parent have the right to decide what’s going to happen to your kid,” Cheung replied. “If the kids are U.S. citizens, you have the choice to let them stay here if there’s someone to take care of them, or to take them with you.”
That is why, Cheung said, it is important for immigrant families with U.S. citizen children to ensure that those children have passports.
David Wynne, a social worker at nearby T.C. Williams High School, sought to reassure families that their children are safe at school. But he urged them to update emergency contact information in case they are detained.
“I want to live in a city like Alexandria, where the whole world lives. I want to live in a city where everyone is welcome,” Wynne said in Spanish. He then gestured to parent volunteers in the back. “Every person here wants you to be here and wants you to be safe and wants your children to be safe.”
Many remain frightened. Mario Arevalo, who arrived in the United States from El Salvador as a 10-year-old in 2003, qualifies for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that shields certain immigrants from deportation if they came to the country before their 16th birthday. He has family members who are undocumented, including a preschooler.
“It’s scary to think that at any time, anything could happen,” Arevalo said. “Right now, nobody is safe.”