NORTHAMPTON — The couple signing the paperwork were contemplating an unthinkable prospect for most parents: What would happen if they were deported? Would they leave their children in the United States or take them to a country they have never known? Stay together or separate, with the hope the children will have more opportunity if they stay here?
“Honestly, I would like them to stay here, but at the same time I want my family to be together,” the mother said. “The kids would go with me, and I would be fearful for us as a family.”
The 30-year-old woman and 37-year-old man, who live in Western Massachusetts, have four children together, three of whom were born in the United States. Neither parent is in the country legally.
And so they are taking the advice of immigration advocates, school officials, and the attorney general’s office and creating an emergency plan in case they must be separated from the children. The mother’s younger brother, who is a legal resident, will become the children’s caregiver if necessary.
“It’s scary, but more importantly it’s a necessity to make sure the kids are going to be fine,” the mother said in Spanish, just before signing two affidavits that authorize her younger brother to make education, health-related, and other decisions for her children should she or their father be detained.
This, the father said, “is something that we can prepare for the future.”
The Globe is not identifying the couple because they fear being arrested by immigration officials.
As the Trump administration has stepped up enforcement of immigration laws and arrested more immigrants who are in the country illegally, a coalition of lawyers and advocates created a 32-page guide and a template for such affidavits, which are based on state law, to help families understand who can care for a child if a mother or father is detained or deported.
The guide was produced this summer by nearly a dozen groups, including the ACLU of Massachusetts, Greater Boston Legal Services, and Catholic Charities Greater Boston. It is being used as a resource by organizations that work with immigrants as well as Boston Public Schools, which features the information on its website. The office of Massachusetts’ attorney general, Maura Healey, created a similar guide for families in English, Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Portuguese.
The affidavits must be notarized and are then held onto by the parties involved, only being given to a school or doctor when necessary. The forms aren’t filed with any government agency and don’t produce a paper trail that can be shared with immigration officials.
“One way to look at this is like an insurance policy,” Bill Newman, director of the ACLU’s Western Massachusetts Legal Office, told the Salvadoran woman and man as they completed the forms last week in his office. “A lot of people buy insurance and most people don’t have to use it, and that’s what we hope. Nothing goes into effect now. It will only take effect if something really bad happens.”
Many fear that if they are arrested, their children could be put in the custody of the state Department of Children and Families. But that fear may be unfounded. Sharon Torgerson, spokeswoman for Health and Human Services, said in an e-mail that DCF doesn’t get involved if a child is in a parent’s custody when he or she is detained.
“The parent can make arrangements to place the child with an appropriate caregiver,” the statement said. “DCF would only become involved if a report of abuse or neglect were filed.”
For the couple in Newman’s office, the journey to this moment started 12½ years ago. The father came from El Salvador first and the mother followed, chasing economic opportunity and love.
‘One way to look at this is like an insurance policy. A lot of people buy insurance and most people don’t have to use it, and that’s what we hope. Nothing goes into effect now. It will only take effect if something really bad happens. ’
Their daughter was about 3 years old, and the couple decided that a perilous journey to a foreign country was better than the stark reality of their current situation: Gang members were constantly trying to extort money from the father and threatening to kill him if he didn’t pay or join. The mother, who stayed home caring for her aging parents, was unemployed and not in school.
But despite the stories of men being kidnapped and women being raped on their journey to the United States, they came.
“It was terrible. I crossed the river and rode a train,” the 37-year-old man said in Spanish. He was 25 at the time. “Almost for a day and half, I was on top of the train with the train moving.”
The mother followed about six months later while eight months pregnant with their second child. Immigration authorities stopped her at the Texas border and fingerprinted, photographed, and released her because her due date was near, she said.
The last leg of her journey was a weeklong bus trip to Massachusetts, where she joined the father of her children.
The couple had two more children together but eventually split. Both work as restaurant cooks earning minimum wage ($11 an hour) and working more than 40 hours a week.
The mother recently gave birth to her fifth child, whose father is also undocumented.
Though the threat of arrest and deportation looms, the mother prefers not to think about it, choosing to be optimistic about the family’s odds.
“I ask God to let everything come out OK,” she said, cradling her newborn in her arms.
She popped back on ICE’s radar three years ago when she was pulled over by police and charged with driving without a license. At the time, officers learned she had an order of deportation as a result of entering the country illegally.
Since then she has made regular check-ins with ICE, the most recent being days after giving birth to her fifth child. At that appointment, she was told to return in four months. She is fearful that immigration authorities will detain her when she goes back.
She said she has considered going underground, especially as her children increasingly worry that their family will be separated. The older ones have begun to ask if the president is going to deport them, she said. But in the end, she said, it is better to check in with immigration officials.
“You never know if, by [living underground], you’ll get something good out of it,” she said.Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.