It’s the word you heard most this week while walking through Charlotte’s Latino-immigrant neighborhoods, into churches and hair salons, past bus stops and into neighbors’ homes.
“We are in this limbo. We don’t know what is going to happen,” said Sugey Garcia, who said she and her husband fled poverty and drug violence in El Salvador 10 years ago, and have lived responsibly – though she is here illegally – in the United States since then, supporting themselves and two children, and paying taxes on his earnings as a truck driver.
Annabel Manning, an artist active in the Latin American community, said many Charlotte immigrants she has spent time with are “in shock ... The conversations were very grim. There was a lot of crying and a lot of fear and uncertainty.”
About 140,000 people in Mecklenburg County are immigrants, according to the most recent U.S. Census data (2013’s), with about half from Latin America. Nationally, an estimated 11 million immigrants are living in the country illegally, some 400,000 in North Carolina, according to a Department of Homeland Security estimate in 2011.
The Nov. 8 election of Donald Trump sent a tremor through Latin-American neighborhoods, where anxiety flows over the possibility of massive deportations and family separations. Trump’s contradictory statements have added to the confusion.
He pledged in his campaign to deport the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, build a wall along the Mexican border and reverse executive actions by President Obama that protected hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation. Trump seemed to soften his stance on “60 Minutes” the Sunday after the election, saying he would prioritize deporting criminals.
That didn’t allay all fears on Charlotte’s streets. And not all the anxiety comes from Latino immigrants.
A 42-year-old woman from the Czech Republic, who asked that her name not be used for fear of deportation, said she’s lived undocumented in this country for 15 years. She had hoped to gain legal status in the next few years (her husband expects to be granted citizenship in two, and can sponsor her). Now, “I’m scared that something is going to change.”
Leaders of the city’s Latin American community took to social media and hosted meetings in the past two weeks, urging people to remain calm and hopeful, but to keep up with the news. Charlotte immigration attorneys said they fielded calls from worried clients, and offered the same advice. Headlines in Wednesday editions of Spanish-language weeklies included “Immigrant families asked to face fear with unity” and “New Beginning: The arrival of Donald Trump as president is a call to the Hispanic community to resume activism and rethink ways to defend immigrants.”
“I’m so depressed, I can hardly talk about it,” said Garcia. Worst, she said, was hearing the fear in her U.S.-born 9-year-old’s voice as she described classmates taunting each other with “Your parents are going to be deported.”
“Going back to El Salvador, where there is no future for my children,” she said, “is not an option.”
Charlotte immigration lawyer Catherine Lafferty Magennis writes regularly for the Spanish-language newspaper La Noticia. This week, she was drafting a column titled “Know Your Rights: Preparing for the Trump Presidency.”
Said Magennis: “There are some things that could change overnight, with executive order, and we have to prepare for that. I’ve contacted all my clients that I feel could be affected within the first 100 days of this new administration.”
That would include people who are part of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
DACA allows undocumented immigrants who arrived as children to pay a fee for temporary work authorization – and protection against deportation. It was instituted by executive action and is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security – which means, some immigration experts believe, that it could be ended quickly by the next administration. Trump said during the campaign he would reverse Obama’s executive orders.
Also unclear: How Trump will define “criminal.” Now, some undocumented immigrants who commit felonies are deported after serving their sentences, according to Magennis, but others may be given legal status afterward – if, for example, their spouse is a citizen.
Many of Trump’s proposals “would have to be changes in actual law and regulations,” she said, “and cannot be done by executive order. So it does take time. And there’s always a possibility that there could be comprehensive immigration reform. It’s not off the table.”
One of immigration attorney Mercer Cauley’s biggest fears now, he said, is that immigrants will make decisions out of fear or be scammed by notarios: unlicensed immigration consultants, some of whom sell empty promises of green cards or protected status in exchange for thousands of dollars. (In Mexico, a “notario publico” is a legal professional with far greater authority than a U.S. notary public.)
“Don’t make decisions out of fear,” he said he’s telling clients. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. There are times to be worried and afraid ... (but) we’ll tell you when it’s time to be worried and afraid.”
‘Prepared for anything’
Jessica Contreras, who arrived from Mexico at age 5, is a 21-year-old legal assistant whose status was legalized by the DACA program. She said she has organized community meetings to help people stay informed, and to channel her own anxiety.
“Having deferred action has helped my family tremendously, because it gave us a sense of security. Being able to legally work, to legally have a driver’s license... For now, we were safe – or at least I was safe.”
Her family hoped Clinton would be elected and extend DACA, and that it would be applied to the rest of the family. Now, “we need to be prepared for anything.”
From her travel agency and tax services office on South Boulevard, Sara Lopez said she has been a consoler of sorts this week, offering a shoulder and advice to those shaken.
She was born in the United States but understands the implications of deportation first-hand. When she was 7, her undocumented parents – dad, a plumber; mom, a restaurant cook – were given 30 days to leave the country or face deportation, with Sara, as a U.S. citizen, put in foster care.
So her parents emptied their home and took young Sara back to Puebla, Mexico. There, she said, she sold candy on the street to supplement her parents’ income so they could afford food. An immigration lawyer helped her father find a company willing to sponsor him, and four years after they were deported, the family returned to the States legally.
The experience made her determined to help the Latin American community she is a part of. Now, she arranges travel for seasonal workers coming from Latin America on visas, and helps immigrants obtain tax ID numbers so they can pay taxes on the money they earn. (She urges people to pay taxes to contribute to their society. Some immigrant leaders also suggest that those who pay taxes will be looked upon more favorably if an immigration amnesty program ever happens.)
“All that I can imagine is all the people who are going through that (fear) right now,” Lopez said.
“All those kids, I just hug them and tell them, ‘Yes, I know what you’re going through.’ ”
Cristina Bolling; 704-358-5440