Government & Politics

‘What if I were undocumented?’ Immigrants among us wary as Trump presidency arrives

Children of undocumented immigrants nervous about future of DACA policy

Recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals voice their concerns for the future of the policy that allows certain undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from de
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Recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals voice their concerns for the future of the policy that allows certain undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from de

The question sounded provocative. Hypothetical. Carmelita knew it.

“What if I were undocumented?” asked the 22-year-old Kansas City woman, who wanted to be identified only by her first name.

“But you’re not,” the people around her answered.

They thought they knew her. They were young adults at a summer Catholic church retreat, reuniting friendships from previous retreats.

This time, though, the 2016 presidential election was on everyone’s minds. The talk had turned to Donald Trump and immigration.

Carmelita listened to their frustrations with people who some thought of as illegal residents in America. Some cheered Trump’s calls for walling the border and deporting millions.

“But what if I were undocumented?” Carmelita insisted.

What happens after Trump takes office Jan. 20 weighs heavily over her in ways her friends didn’t see — worried for herself and even more so for her Ecuadorian parents living with a secret in a small Missouri town. That’s why she only wants to be identified by her first name.

Trump’s options could be far-ranging in some directions, but he’ll be frustrated in others, experts say.

On his first day, he could strike through the reprieve President Barack Obama gave to 740,000 undocumented young adults who were brought into the U.S. as children.

Also, sheriff’s departments working with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement could turn holding cells upside down, immigration attorney Michael Sharma-Crawford said. They could go after people with violations as minor as having no driver’s license, “shaking jails by the end of the feet.”

Statutory changes, however, would be harder to come by, Sharma-Crawford said. And the wall — as it has in the past — may be cost-prohibitive.

But there is a bigger concern, he said, “in the language” of the campaign and “the ability to hate.”

He wonders how far it can seep into the enforcement networks and the justice system.

Carmelita at the church retreat looked into the faces of her friends, not knowing where each of them drew their lines between what’s rational in protecting U.S. borders and what sows fear and hate.

What her friends saw looking at her was a Rockhurst University graduate with degrees in history and French, speaking perfect, unaccented English.

She didn’t press on with her question. She let them dismiss it. They didn’t want to play her “undocumented” game.

But it was no game.

Deep concerns

Just this month, Carmelita woke to a message on her phone that she had missed a 5:30 a.m. phone call from her mother.

She caught her breath and called back. Terrified.

The first place her fears go is that her mother and father have been arrested and detained, primed for deportation.

She cries as she recounts the story. Her mother answered, and she was OK. But she had been stopped by a police officer as she drove in the morning dark toward her factory job. She was “swerving,” the officer told her.

Her mother said she wasn’t sure what happened. She can speak and understand English, but not always that well.

They checked her fingerprints. Maybe they knew she was undocumented. But her unblemished record must have made her not worth the trouble for ICE — this time.

“I had to go see them,” the daughter said, wiping at her eyes.

Carmelita is one of those 740,000 young adults reprieved by Obama when he signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Signed in 2012, DACA gave temporary permission to stay and work in the U.S. to young immigrants who came before they were 16, have clean criminal records and are in school or are high school graduates.

Those who registered and received approval could get a driver’s license, a Social Security number and a work permit.

But for many DACA students, the parents who brought them here are still undocumented. Losing them to a deportation sweep can be an even greater terror than the threat of losing DACA’s protections.

On one hand, Trump has softened his statements on DACA since he was elected, telling Time magazine, “We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud.

“They got brought here at a very young age. They’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”

But his campaign featured harsh language against immigrants. The softening words toward the DACA students only prod fears that deportation efforts would instead focus more intensely on targets like their parents.

Trump’s intentions are a mystery, said Robert Sagastume, lead coordinator of the Kansas Missouri Dream Alliance, which supports immigrant rights.

But deep concerns persist in the immigrant community because of the people Trump is loading into his Cabinet and leadership positions, Sagastume said.

“His Cabinet is anti-immigrant on the front line,” he said.

Trump’s choice for attorney general is Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a staunch immigration opponent. And one of Trump’s top advisers and a potential staffer is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, architect of restrictive immigration laws. Kobach unsuccessfully brought a federal lawsuit against Obama’s DACA program.

Trump’s hard-core supporters will be watching for him to make good on campaign promises, wrote William Gheen, president of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, for The Hill.

“Trump must tread very carefully,” Gheen wrote. He would face “serious repercussions” if “he reverses or ‘softens’ the promise to adequately enforce America’s existing border and immigration laws.”

Accommodating people in the country illegally, Gheen said, “would come at the cost of many U.S. jobs, taxpayer resources and lives.”

Carmelita wants people to know that she is a career-minded, fresh college graduate because her parents worked 10-hour days on labor-intensive jobs unappealing to most Americans so she could have this chance.

This is what she couldn’t bring herself to tell her church friends that day. This is who she is.

Her parents gave up family ties in Ecuador when they decided to overstay their visas. Her father’s mother died recently, and it tore Carmelita’s heart to see him mournful and unable to go home to her funeral.

She wants to make good of their sacrifice. “I want to give back,” she said. “But I really don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s darker now. It’s bleak.”

‘Getting DACA was like, wow!”

The Kansas City area’s immigrant population has grown by 300 percent since 1990, according to the Migration Policy Institute, from some 33,750 to 135,000.

Four millennials taking coffees recently at the Pirate’s Bone coffee shop at 59th Street and Holmes Road counted among that number.

They were shop owner Zaid Consuegra and Oziel Pruneda from Mexico, Sagastume from Honduras and Carmelita from Ecuador.

And of those 135,000 area immigrants, an estimated 41,000 today — 30 percent — are unauthorized.

All four of them, spirited into the U.S. as children, had lived that life as well.

That means living with the resignation, Pruneda said, that state college doors may be closed to you. Door-knocking in pursuit of yard mowing jobs may be all you can do to help with family income.

You don’t drive, he said, or you drive with frantic attention to speed limits and passing police cars.

Consuegra saved, scratched and borrowed to open his coffee shop, he said, because as hard as it is to start a business — and it’s very hard — it was his way of giving himself a job.

And if your skin is light enough, Carmelita said, you might find yourself trying to pass as white, only to feel alienated in both worlds.

Nationally, about 11 million U.S. residents are considered unauthorized immigrants.

Trump is stepping into a U.S. immigrant removal network that is already deporting a record number of unauthorized residents — more than 400,000 a year under Obama.

Some immigrant advocates have called Obama the “deporter in chief,” highlighting the mixed feelings toward his administration.

Sharma-Crawford senses the impending arrival of the Trump administration is already stoking hardline staffers within the inner bureaucracies of ICE and Homeland Security.

“We’re already seeing pushback,” he said, “from people (denying or slowing requests on behalf of immigrants) saying, ‘It’s a new day,’ ” and Trump hasn’t even taken office yet.

If Trump can be persuaded to preserve DACA, or if congressional efforts to extend it are successful, the work of protecting the nation’s interests would be easier, Sharma-Crawford said.

He recommends extending DACA-like freedoms to more undocumented immigrants for the same reason.

Immigrants who have lived in the U.S., who aspire to work, who wish to protect their families and who have no criminal history could come forward and register, separating themselves from the high-priority risks with criminal records whom ICE seeks.

Every time they register and re-register, Sharma-Crawford said, “you’d be sifting the wheat from the chaff.”

It is a hard sell. It equates to amnesty for many, and amnesty is a nonstarter among anti-immigration forces.

But more people could come out of the shadows and work legally, no longer so vulnerable to exploitation, able again to travel and visit families they left behind, he said.

The people who might reveal themselves as undocumented would surprise many of their friends and neighbors, the DACA students say. They’ve seen it for themselves.

Because they’ve taken jobs now. They’ve paid tuition to colleges. They’re supporting their parents after so many years of meager means.

“Getting DACA,” Consuegra said, “was like, wow!”

Stunning simple moments followed, like going to the Department of Motor Vehicles on his own, taking a number, showing his documents when called, paying the fee and then walking out with tags for his car.

Pruneda knew what it meant when his mother sifted the federal letter out of a handful of mail while they idled in a fast-food drive-thru.

There he saw his approval for DACA, “and I am crying in the drive-thru,” he said.

They came out to colleagues and neighbors, some of whom took to fumbling over their feelings against unauthorized immigration.

“They say, ‘But you’re good,’ ” Pruneda said.

Carmelita is ready now for her friends back at the Catholic retreat to know who she is.

She’ll ask them: “How do you see me now?”

More stories

As Donald Trump’s inauguration approaches, The Star is looking at people who could be affected by some of the positions the president-elect campaigned on. Previous stories:

Steelworkers and trade:

Refugees in Independence:

People using Obamacare:

Federal workers: