In a church hall in Northern Virginia, a father of two named Jose sat at a long table and stared at the legal document before him. It was a road map for life without him.
He initialed the clause that said that if he and his wife were arrested or deported, the person they were choosing as a guardian for their girls would make decisions about their schooling.
With his index finger tracing each line, he read how the guardian would bring the girls to school and day care, decide who will pick them up, and have the power to book airline tickets on their behalf so the children could reunite with their parents in Central America.
The next line highlighted the power to make decisions if either girl was hospitalized. At this, Jose froze.
“That’s when they need me,” he said to himself. “What if I’m not there?”
It is a question thousands of undocumented immigrants are asking across the United States, in the apple orchards outside Spokane, Wash., the blueberry fields near Grand Rapids, Mich., and at churches and community centers in Maryland and Virginia.
On Spanish-language television and online, immigration lawyers and foreign consulates are responding to a widely publicized immigration crackdown by the Trump administration, and urging undocumented parents who could be deported to leave clear instructions for their bank accounts, real estate holdings and — most of all — their children.
About 5.1 million children in this country have a parent who is here illegally, according to estimates from the Migration Policy Institute. Nearly 80 percent of those children are U.S. citizens.
Hector Quiroga, a Spokane immigration lawyer, said that after Trump took office his call volume peaked at 300 calls a day from people seeking to protect their children and assets. He hired three new secretaries, but could not keep up. Then he posted the instructions for selecting a guardian online. The video had been viewed more than 35,000 times.
“People are petrified,” Quiroga said. “They’re desperately trying to get these documents.”
Lawyers caution that custody rules vary by state, and they are urging parents to consult with nonprofits and family lawyers before signing any documents. In Virginia, for instance, immigrants can assign temporary caretakers for their children by signing powers of attorney documents before a licensed notary. But in Maryland, someone designated by the parents would have to go to court to seek guardianship.
Even in states where the laws are complex, lawyers say parents should craft an emergency plan that appoints someone to take charge if they are detained.
“I would definitely say to take the safety precautions,” said Michelle Mendez, an attorney with Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., based in Baltimore. “Anybody can get detained and deported right now.”
That was clear to Jose and his wife, GG, as they watched news footage of immigration arrests in the weeks after Trump’s inauguration, sitting on pushed-together couches in the living room of the tidy Northern Virginia colonial they share with their daughters, Jose’s parents and his sister and her family.
Jose is a welder from El Salvador. GG, from Honduras, works at McDonald’s. The couple asked that their full names not be published, out of fear that such exposure would make it easier for deportation agents to find them.
Although the Obama administration deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants in some years, the former president said he prioritized security threats, not families. Under President Trump, those rules are gone. In February, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported Guadalupe García de Rayos, the mother of two children who were born in the United States and therefore have citizenship. On April 19, the agency deported Maribel Trujillo Diaz, a mother of four U.S. citizens.
Longtime proponents of reducing illegal immigration have applauded the Trump administration’s efforts, saying that stepping up deportations will deter others from crossing the border without permission.
Jose and GG deliberated late into the night about how, if the worst happened, they would make sure that their 7-year-old and almost-2-year-old were well taken care of.
Finally, Jose asked a friend, a Panamanian-born woman who is now a U.S. citizen, to become the girls’ temporary guardian if needed. The two friends had met years ago, in English class. “She introduces me like I’m her brother,” Jose said.
And she agreed to take care of the girls if their parents were taken away. It was settled. All the grown-ups had to do was sign the papers.
On a recent Sunday, sun streamed through the tall windows in the church hall as Jose, GG and a couple dozen other immigrants listened to a lawyer give instructions.
Jose’s older daughter nibbled on a muffin. His toddler, wearing a red hoodie that said “I am a giggle monster,” bounced in her grandmother’s arms.
“It’s like temporary custody,” Robert K. Lacy, a Fairfax immigration lawyer explained to the parents before they examined the records. “Like you went on a trip. It’s not for tomorrow. I hope it’s for never.”
But Jose knew that families can splinter at any time.
When he was 5 years old, , his father joined one of the leftist guerrilla movements fighting the U.S.-backed army in El Salvador’s brutal civil war.
Five years later, Jose’s mother went to fight also, leaving a network of friends to care for Jose and his sisters.
Sometimes his mother visited them. Other times he watched the war from the yard. Bombs lighted the night sky, helicopters fired into the trees, and he wondered if his parents were somewhere down below.
Eight years after the war ended, Jose’s father mortgaged their house and bought a bus to start a transport company. Days later, it was stolen. With debt and no livelihood, he joined thousands crossing illegally into the United States. Jose, his mother and one of his four sisters eventually followed. Back home, gang violence soared.
That family history — the loneliness of separation, the relief at being back together — was on Jose’s mind that day in the church hall, as he signed the papers.
“We had the luck to find each other,” he said. “Many never had that chance. I know what it is like to lose your dad.”