Behind closed doors: Undocumented Missouri families face ‘worst fears’ as arrests rise

Since she was a little girl, Yazmin Bruno has watched her mother make the sign of the cross every time they get into a car.

Bruno came to the U.S. when she was 3. Fifteen years later, she and her mother are among 55,000 people in Missouri who are undocumented, a fact she has been painfully aware of all her life.

While working on a homework assignment in third grade, she realized she wanted to be an immigration attorney.

“I wanted to give my mom justice and I wanted to give my life justice,” she said.

These days, her mom no longer wants to leave their Kansas City home.

“She doesn’t get out of the house unless she has to go to work,” she said. “We haven’t really gone out to eat or really even bought groceries unless we really need something.”

They live under an increasing atmosphere of threat, as deportations have ramped up, sometimes in frightening fashion, here and across the country.

In the first six months of this year, 3,115 people in Missouri faced deportation cases. That’s more than the total number of cases filed in 2017, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization based at Syracuse University.

In the Kansas City area last month, widespread fears of immigration enforcement hit home when a video showing a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, backed up by local police officers, smashing out a man’s car window went viral. Reports of similar police cooperation in Lawrence prompted the police chief to release a statement explaining why local officers responded to the scene.

Kansas City immigration attorney Angela Ferguson, who has been in practice for 34 years, said three years into the administration of President Donald Trump, it’s getting harder for her to win cases for her clients.

“Some of the worst fears are coming to fruition,” Ferguson said.

Yazmin’s story

Bruno said her upbringing in the U.S. has been pretty typical.

She likes doing makeup for her and her friends and baking, and she helps watch her three younger siblings, who are citizens.

When Bruno was in high school, her family hired an attorney to get her enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Her efforts were thwarted.

First, her biological father, who lives in Mexico, had to sign documents giving authorization. That took about a year.

The process inched forward into the summer of 2017, when her stepdad, who was also enrolling in DACA, was supposed to drop off her school transcripts. He didn’t.

At first, Bruno was angry with him.

“I don’t think I talked to him for a very long time,” she said. “I was like, ‘You took away my chance to go to college, you took away my chance to drive and not be scared. You took away everything that I wanted.’”

Eventually she came to understand his reasons.

A worry that runs throughout the undocumented community is that information — including addresses and fingerprints — submitted to the government could be used to deport them.

“Then I saw that, I wasn’t angry at him,” she said. “I was angry at the country that I thought was my country, putting me in this situation.”

In September 2017, the Trump administration halted DACA. For several months, enrolled participants were stripped of their protections until a judge ordered a partial reinstatement. New applications continue to be blocked.

When Bruno began her senior year of high school at Sumner Academy of Arts and Science, she was convinced the door to going to college had been slammed shut. It was a devastating prospect. One day after attending a college fair, she recalled riding the bus home “crying my eyes out.”

Assist from KCPD

Three weeks ago in Kansas City, an ICE agent broke out a car window to arrest 32-year-old Florencio Millan, who was with his girlfriend and their two children.

Activists criticized the agent’s use of force and condemned the Kansas City Police Department for providing backup to the federal agency.

Millan illegally crossed the border multiple times and had been living for several years with his girlfriend and children, who are U.S. citizens.

He was deported two days later.

In a blog post written after Millan’s arrest, Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith said the department does not engage in “proactive immigration enforcement.” However, he said, officers do respond to calls for backup from other agencies, including ICE.

Sgt. Jacob Becchina, a department spokesman, said police don’t count the number of times the department has been called to assist ICE.

In May 2016, the police department and ICE signed a memorandum of understanding allowing local officers to undergo training to perform the duties of a customs officer. The contract states enforcement of laws relating to ICE “requires close cooperation and coordination between the two agencies,” but excludes the ability of officers to enforce immigration laws.

According to Becchina, “there is no indication that any KCPD officers are working in the capacity that is listed on that MOU.”

Not all advocates see incidents such as Millan’s arrest as a problem. In the Westside neighborhood, the Community Action Network Center hosts programs for undocumented workers.

The center houses an office for two community police officers and kitchen space for laborers to use before and after work. In the middle of the center sit tables with free fruit and vegetables picked by day laborers, some of whom are undocumented.

Director Jorge Coromac said the community and the police need to continue working together.

“One case that’s going to destroy the whole relationship? I’m sorry, but no,” he said. “Some of the police officers, they respond because it’s their job. And we, taxpayers, pay them to do their job.”

Coromac emphasized the trust that’s built over many years with the community officers and how that trust allows them to address neighborhood problems.

Those with immigration issues, Coromac added, should take the appropriate steps before something like an arrest happens.

“There is better ways to do that,” he said. “Prevention is something that we believe the most.”

Ferguson, the immigration attorney, disagreed.

“Locally our police departments should not be doing the work of immigration enforcement,” she said. ”We have enough crime in our city, enough work for our police officers, they should focus on protecting the community.”

About one-third of her cases involve victims of crimes that occurred in the U.S.

“People are more fearful to report those crimes to police, especially the domestic violence cases,” she said.

DACA recipient

One Kansas City man, faced with the uncertainty of his future as a DACA recipient, has become involved in activism.

Alex Martinez, now 28, came to the Kansas City area when he was 14 years old. He remembers walking with strangers across the desert, the river and the border. There were traumatic days of constant sun and dehydration.

When DACA became available, Martinez enrolled. The program postpones deportation, but is limited in its protections. Technically, Martinez’s presence in the U.S. is still unlawful. And DACA doesn’t provide a pathway to citizenship.

When the program was temporarily rescinded in 2017, “it was a scary time,” Martinez said.

But the program’s stoppage also spurred action.

Martinez and others traveled to D.C. to support immigration reform. DACA’s fate is now in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to hear arguments on the case during its next session.

While Bruno and Martinez worry about what the government will do to them and their families, they said, they also are determined to take action.

“We do have fear, but we just refuse to let people like (former Kansas Secretary of State) Kris Kobach and Donald Trump win,” he said.

Bruno and Martinez channel their energy into community outreach with the Kansas/Missouri Dream Alliance.

“We’re out here doing the work to make this community stronger and more vibrant,” Martinez said.

He said Millan’s arrest only increases the wariness some feel of police.

“[ICE’s] job is really just to terrorize our communities,” he said. “It was disappointing that the Kansas City Police Department was collaborating with them.”

ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer, reached this week, said the agency enforces laws passed by Congress.

“If the public want those laws changed, there is a well-established means of making changes — i.e. via the elected representatives,” he said.

Immigration court

Last week, a Springfield, Missouri, man entered Courtroom Two of the federal immigration court in downtown Kansas City, along with his wife and four children, ages 6, 8, 14 and 17.

They lugged armfuls of photo albums, documents and a poster board with family photos showing the couple on their wedding day, the man at his wife’s side after the birth of one of their children and other family scenes.

When the couple sat before Judge Glen Baker, the man told the judge his daughter made the collage for a school assignment.

“Beautiful,” the judge commented.

The man and the woman answered questions while their children listened from the wooden benches behind them. They didn’t have an attorney, which isn’t uncommon, according to data collected by TRAC.

Baker told the man he may be a candidate to have his removal canceled. To be eligible, an individual has to have been in the country for 10 years, have a qualifying relative and show that leaving would impose a hardship.

The application the man submitted to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services still needs to be processed, so Baker set the next court date for March 2020.

Outside the courtroom, the man and his family walked through the waiting room, past a window where a portrait of Trump and a U.S. flag were displayed, and exited out through a metal detector.

The woman, who is a citizen, said the couple has been married for 17 years.

The Star is not naming the couple, so as not to jeopardize the man’s ongoing case.

The woman explained that they rounded up photo albums and greeting cards as proof that her husband has been in the country for many years.

The citizenship process has “been very lengthy,” she said. It was further delayed because of the government shutdown that started in December 2018 and lasted nearly a month because of disagreements in Congress about border wall funding.

In June 2018, when the man was arrested and held in jail, the family feared what would happen to him. Without his income, they worried about going hungry and losing their home. He was released after spending about a month in jail.

But his family, much like Bruno’s, continue to fear what could happen every time they step outside.

Bruno said her family makes deliberate decisions like buying items in bulk to reduce going out and avoiding areas where ICE activity has been rumored.

Fear isn’t solely about facing immigration enforcement, she said. It’s also encountering “people who don’t agree with your existence.”

Strangers have yelled racial slurs and threatened to call ICE on her family.

But Bruno is determined to pursue her dreams.

Advocates at the Kansas/Missouri Dream Alliance helped her research colleges and scholarships that accept undocumented students.

She received a scholarship and in just a couple of weeks, she will start classes — the next step on the path to becoming an immigration attorney.

“I’ve always loved this country and I’ve always considered myself an American because I grew up here, and I think I have as many dreams as the person next to me but with a social security [number],” she said.

Still, her future remains at the mercy of the government and perhaps, luck.

“If something happens, we will fight,” Bruno said. “I will fight as much as I possibly can to not have our family separated like unfortunately many families have been.”

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Katie Moore covers crime and justice issues for The Star. She is a University of Kansas graduate and was previously a reporter in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas.