Editor’s note: The names of undocumented immigrants in this story have been changed; they spoke on that condition because they fear being deported.
In a bungalow on the city’s east side, Ruby listens as her mother reads a bedtime story. Then it’s time for prayers.
Please bless the people who don’t have enough food to eat and a warm bed to sleep in like me, Ruby says. Thank you for keeping my family together.
And please don’t separate us.
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Ruby is 4.
She started adding the last request to her bedtime prayers in February, says her mother, Marina.
Changes to immigration policy under President Donald Trump have have created an urgency for children whose parents are in the U.S. illegally: What happens if parents are deported?
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they continue to target those who have committed crimes, and the Trump administration has said it doesn’t plan mass deportation roundups. But nationally, deportation hearings have been sped up, a Jan. 25 executive order made “all removable aliens” subject to deportation, and an executive action called for the hiring of thousands of new ICE agents.
ICE has arrested more than 30 undocumented immigrants in Charlotte since Jan. 1. And immigration lawyers and advocates in Charlotte say a significant shift has happened.
Before January, “it was primarily people who had prior orders of removal who also had criminal records .. that were the priorities,” said Heather Ziemba, director of the Immigrant Justice Program at Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont.
“Now, anyone who is not in a legal status is a priority for detention or deportation,” Ziemba said.
So parents like Marina, many of whose children are U.S.-born and have never seen their parents’ native countries, are hurrying to make worst-case-scenario plans. They’re changing daily routines to lessen risk, choosing not to drive or shop. They’re drafting paperwork for who will take care of what they leave behind if they’re deported – and who will take their kids.
“The biggest worry for us, and for most people,” Marina says, “is the children.”
On Charlotte’s east side, Diana struggles to make a plan for getting passports for her two U.S.-born children. She and her husband must both appear to get them for the children, and her husband needs a replacement passport from his native Honduras first. But the couple feels that traveling to Atlanta, the closest place for him to get that replacement, is risky.
“What if we get stopped on the way?” Diana asks.
She says she feels verguenza – shame – about putting her children in this vulnerable position. But in her more than 10 years here, she says, she’s never felt such uncertainty. And the dangers of returning to her crime- and poverty-ridden hometown are greater than staying here and risking deportation, she says.
Others no longer trust circumstances that once felt more secure.
Twice in the last month, federal agents have knocked on the apartment door of Nita and her 8-year-old child, she says.
Both times, ICE agents sought the previous renter, she says, a woman she’s never met. Both times she showed them her Mexican passport and her petition for a special visa: She was the victim of a violent crime while living here, and this visa would permit her to stay. Both times, the agents left.
But she worries now that those papers will no longer keep her here.
So on a recent Saturday morning, Nita brought her daughter to an immigration power-of-attorney legal clinic organized by Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont. There, a lawyer helped her prepare papers that would turn her assets and care of her daughter over to an uncle if she’s deported.
“She says she’d want to come with me,” Lopez said, motioning to her wavy-haired daughter, sitting beside her. “But where will I go?”
These legal clinics are likely to get more numerous, organizers say. Another, at Camino Community Center earlier in March, drew about 100 parents who wanted notarized letters that spell out who would assume guardianship of their children and take hold of their assets.
Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition hired its first full-time immigration attorney, and two paralegals, because of the increased immigration enforcement, says Jose Hernandez-Paris, the coalition’s director.
“Our community went into hyper-drive preparing for the worst,” he said.
Less leaving home, more rumors
Those here illegally say they’ve begun to avoid driving, going out in public and other activities that might put them in a situation where they could be stopped by ICE.
Ruby doesn’t run and play at the park before afternoon preschool like she used to, Marina says. And grocery shopping is now entrusted to her husband, who completes the chore as quickly as he can on his way home from his landscaping job.
Businesses that cater to the city’s Hispanic population say they’re suffering. Manolo Betancur, who owns Las Delicias Bakery on Central Avenue, says he had to let three of 18 staff members go, because so many customers have stopped coming in. In February, amidst several high-profile immigration arrests, cake orders dropped from an average of 45 a weekend to 15, Betancur says. He says people aren’t hosting big celebrations now. February was the first month since he bought the business in 2011 that he’s operated in the red, he says.
At Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, which serves 140 Spanish-speaking families in the preschool and daily parent workshops, six families have withdrawn because parents are afraid of getting arrested on the way to or from school.
Director Joanne Stratton Tate says parents regularly call in to say their kids will be absent because they’ve heard a rumor of arrests being made along their route to school.
One day, rumors were so rampant that Stratton Tate called the Latin American Coalition to check. It turned out that police were investigating a hit-and-run in the area and parents mistook the big police presence for an immigration sting.
“We try to encourage parents that (keeping kids out of school) is not the best option, but it’s very easy for me to say that when I’m a white person with documents,” Stratton Tate said. “The parents’ biggest fear is that they will be separated from their children.”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, cell phones pinged across the Country Club Apartments on Eastway Drive. Police had responded to reports of a car theft. But since ICE agents had been there twice that month already, taking eight Country Club residents into custody, on this day, many were convinced ICE was coming for them.
As elementary school children got off the bus that afternoon, some mothers hurried them inside.
Alejandra, a resident, walked the complex handing out fliers with advice on what to do if approached by police: videotape the encounter, remember your right not to open the door to your home without a warrant, and call the number listed if apprehended.
Forming circles of support
One Charlotte group is training immigrants to use Waze, a traffic app that shows where police are stationed, as reported by other drivers.
Others are putting together lodging plans at hotels and people’s houses, in case immigrants feel unsafe staying in their own homes.
At St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church off Archdale Road, Cross-Cultural Ministry Pastor David Ortigoza oversees a “circle of support”: a service matching undocumented families with families who have papers.
Some parents are so afraid of being deported, Ortigoza said, that they rarely make trips to groceries or drive to doctor’s appointments. So he keeps lists of people’s needs and church volunteers shop or run other errands for those who don’t want to risk being out in public.
On a recent morning, Ortigoza advised a group of mothers of young children who had come for a community event – for many, perhaps the only social outing that week.
“Don’t be isolated,” Ortigoza told them in a church lobby after the meeting. “Connect with people.”