Fear of Trump crackdown haunts undocumented immigrants
DISRUPTED AMERICA: One in a series of occasional articles examining how President Trump’s ascendance and early moves have altered expectations and reality. This story is the third of three gauging those effects in one Pennsylvania county. To read part 1, click here. To read part 2, click here.
YORK, Pa. — The crying starts when Anayeli Cruz talks about the new troubles in her life, the impact on her US-born children, about the changes in the country she has called home for 12 years.
When the sobs come, as they often do, her 2-year-old daughter climbs into her lap and tries to wipe away the tears.
Cruz attempts a smile, but her round, bubbly face crumples again as she describes details of her daily struggles: Fearful of who might call authorities and report her as an undocumented immigrant, she forbade her kids from trick-or-treating for Halloween. She tells the children they must play on the backyard swing set instead of at the public playground. She denied her son a birthday party because, as she put it, “You never know what can happen.”
It appears almost irrational from the outside, but the 28-year-old Mexican immigrant’s fear is undeniable. She is afraid of certain neighbors. She is afraid to leave her home. She is afraid, above all, of President Trump and his immigration crackdown.
The paralyzing dread of deportation that Cruz feels is multiplied by the thousands here in York — a community that, because of its regional immigration court, is one of the largest hubs of detentions and deportations in Pennsylvania. That same apprehension is multiplied by the millions around the country.
Unlike his predecessor, who focused deportations on immigrants with a criminal history, Trump wants undocumented people of all kinds to be found, detained, and sent back to their home countries even if they have not committed a felony in the United States. He signed an executive order putting the new policy into effect just days after his inauguration, fulfilling a central campaign promise.
Now just being in the United States without government permission is grounds for being targeted by federal authorities.
This shift toward harsher treatment of immigrants has been one of the most tangible, and disruptive, actions of Trump’s first year in office. Along with rising numbers of deportations, the accompanying worry and uncertainty in immigrant neighborhoods is its most tangible byproduct.
It’s hard to plan for a future, after all, when that future can at any moment take the form of an immigration agent at your doorstep.
In York, the sense of vulnerability among immigrants is magnified by the community’s small size. Most live in a tight cluster of wood-framed homes downtown; unlike big cities, the close quarters leave virtually nowhere to hide, particularly as York has not declared itself a “sanctuary city.” The anxiety ripples from the strip malls on the outskirts of town to the apple orchards and dairy farms on the country roads, from the stoops on Queen Street downtown to the leafy college campus where undocumented immigrants once thought they had found refuge.
The county’s immigration court — which sits next to the county prison where many immigrants awaiting hearings are held — is now one of the busiest in the country for processing deportations. It has ordered 1,546 deportations this year, which is up almost 40 percent over last year and almost as many as far larger cities such as Boston, Baltimore, and Las Vegas. The handful of immigration lawyers here are flooded with cases.
Sneaking into the United States, or overstaying your official welcome, has always carried risks, of course. But the hazards are much graver now.
Trump’s promised crackdowns, and his pledge to build a wall on the Mexican border, are a big part of what got him elected. He promised as a candidate to deport by the millions, just like Dwight Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback” campaign starting in 1954, which rounded up Mexicans in wholesale fashion. In office, Trump’s early moves toward that model have been cheered by those who see illegal immigration as an intrusion on American life, undermining the integrity of the US economy.
But many of the people targeted for enforcement by Trump have been in the United States for years, even a decade or more, waiting for Washington to decide if they could win a path to legal status or even citizenship. That possibility now seems more remote than ever.
Immigrants report being afraid to drive or even come out of their homes. Some are preparing to give up custody of their US-born minor children, in the event they are picked up by immigration authorities.
“All these people who have anything less than citizenship are now rattled,” said Elizabeth Alex, a senior director of organizing and leadership at CASA, an immigrant rights group. “The onion is peeling layer by layer and the whole community is realizing: None of us is safe anymore.”
. . .
Cruz crossed the border illegally from Mexico into Arizona about 12 years ago, when she was a teenager. Now she lives on a quiet street of shabby wood-frame houses, chopped up as rental units, where the “No Trespassing’’ signs are in English and Spanish.
Her home near downtown York is just blocks from the spot where the Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation in 1777, during the brief period when York was the new nation’s capital.
Until this year, Cruz said she and her family — two undocumented adults, with three US-born children — felt like part of the melting pot culture in York, making their own small contribution to the city’s diversity.
“It didn’t matter, American or not American. It was one community,” she said through a translator, during an interview at the local offices of CASA. “We all fit in everywhere. We’re all humans. We all have the same rights. Nobody would feel superior to others. Now everything has changed.”
The disruption of the last year is baked into her domestic routines.
She washes clothes every other week instead of weekly — putting up with dirtier clothes — and avoids the laundromat. She buys more ingredients for the tacos and tamales she makes at home on each trip to the market, to cut down on shopping trips out in public. She rides the bus or walks, almost never driving a car, with its risks of tickets or accidents that would involve police.
Even Walmart is off limits. There are frequent, but unfounded, rumors in York’s Latino community of federal agents roaming the aisles there.
The nation’s new tone, she said, can be found in the behavior of a woman at the Price Rite discount grocery store, who shouted at Cruz as she spoke in Spanish to her son, saying, “You’re in America! You have to talk English!”
The disruptions in her life grew more intense in late March when her boyfriend — and father to two of her three children — was driving home from his construction job and got into a minor car accident. He immediately knew the implications of police involvement: He had no driver’s license, much less any paperwork for being in this country.
He pleaded with the man in the other car to not call police, offering to pay cash for any damages. But the other motorist refused. Cruz’s boyfriend was arrested and was taken to the York County Prison, which also houses men charged with murder and rape.
They could speak on the phone but, because she is not a US citizen, she could not visit him. When she put the children on the phone to talk to their father, she told them to hold back their tears, to not make him feel any worse that he already did.
Instead, they would say nothing, afraid that as soon as they opened their mouths the tears would flow.
“Where is my father?” they asked over and over. “When is he coming back home? Why is he there?”
Authorities detained him for 15 days. Since his release he has been trying to obtain a work permit, an outcome that is uncertain. Cruz herself has a lawyer helping with a visa application and, with kids here, she thinks she stands a pretty good chance.
“The only motivation I feel right now is I know my kids will go far in life,” she says. “I know they will achieve whatever they want to.”
Her 10-year-old son has a new goal in life. He wants to be an immigration lawyer, who will try cases for free.
. . .
Joe Sacco is a first-generation immigrant, his parents coming from Italy and instilling in him the value of hard work at an early age. But as the 75-year-old former law enforcement official looks at immigrants today, he sees something else, something that is gnawing at his country.
“The Mexican worker works hard. There’s no doubt about it,” Sacco says. “But they drink hard and they commit a lot of crimes hard when they’re off.”
When his taxes go up to pay for the schools, he feels bitter about how much is going to educate the children of undocumented immigrants. When he walks around parts of downtown York — the area where Cruz and many other Hispanics live — he sees a rash of crime.
He says he feels sympathy for the children who came here accompanying their parents. His own father, he says, came over as an 8-year-old and almost immediately began working in the Pennsylvania coal mines, earning $1 a day by climbing down the shaft to make sure the canary was still alive.
But his parents came here legally, he says, while most immigrants today do not. And those people need to be sent home.
“Even the ones living stable lives and everything like that, they’re not citizens,” he says. “They’re not green card holders. They’re not a citizen of the United States of America.”
“It’s a shame they came illegally and they’ve been hiding all this time,” he adds. “A lot of them work hard and are raising a family. But they’re illegal. You can’t just turn your back on the law.”
To Sacco and thousands of others in York County, the unchecked flood of undocumented immigrants had gotten out of hand. To him, Trump’s blunt language on the subject was so refreshing that Sacco backed him a week after he announced his campaign, later becoming a Trump delegate to the Republican National Convention.
“You don’t have a country without borders. You can’t just let everybody in,” he said. “If Trump wants to send them back, it’s a shame, but that’s the way it has to be.”
York County is only 7 percent Hispanic, according to the latest US Census data, and about the same percentage speak a language other than English at home. Both figures are well below the national average.
This is not known as a landing place for border-crossers. It’s a place for people who crossed years ago, immigrant advocates say, and found their way to York. Many of them make up the low-wage workforce, in restaurants and pizza parlors, or the arduous, unrewarding work of picking apples or berries before moving on to another seasonal job.
And yet it is a place, despite being 1,800 miles from the Mexican border, where Trump’s battle cry of “Build the Wall” resonated. Scott Wagner, a state senator from York who is running for governor, filed legislation that would deny state grants for municipalities that don’t help the federal government enforce immigration laws.
“We’re not a border town. We’re in the middle of the mid-Atlantic. But it’s the principle,” said Sam Terroso, a strong Trump supporter who helps run a York-based industrial pipe distribution company. “This is a blue-collar, Americana area. People get up and take pride in going to work every day. And the immigration stuff was principled on the fact that Washington has really screwed this up, allowing people who come here illegally to stay.”
Terroso said his personal trainer, whom he sees twice a week, is an immigrant from the Philippines who has a green card. He says the trainer is married with four kids, pays taxes, and frequently comments over the din of Fox News in the background: “What’s wrong with people doing it the way I do it? Why can’t everyone else do it the right way?”
The longer-established residents of York trace their heritage to Dutch, German, or Italian ancestors who came to the United States several generations ago, when there were few limits on immigration. Terroso’s grandparents and great-grandparents came from Sicily and Germany.
“All those people came here and worked hard and made a life for themselves; everyone appreciates immigration done right,” Terroso said. “But it’s very frustrating when it’s not done right and the government continues to fail the people who get up and work every day. . . . That’s when the backlash comes.”
. . .
York County was one of the places where the backlash was felt strongly, going for Donald Trump, 63 percent to 33 percent, over Hillary Clinton, and helping send him into office with a mandate to shake things up.
On Jan. 25, his fifth full day in office, Trump signed the executive order expanding the categories of undocumented immigrants who would be prioritized for deportation. Those priorities are a big factor in how the government uses its limited number of immigration agents.
While the Obama administration targeted those with an “aggravated felony” or a “significant misdemeanor,” or who entered the country illegally after Jan. 1, 2014, the Trump administration prioritized almost anyone without immigration documents.
Trump also ordered a tripling of the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, laying the groundwork for many more arrests.
The new policy meant that undocumented immigrants stopped for minor traffic accidents could be deported. It meant that if ICE knocked on the door looking for one person who had since moved, but instead found four others, those people could be deported. Any infraction could put them on the radar.
And for people like Marco, a 30-year-old immigrant who came to the United States illegally from Mexico some 13 years earlier, it meant agents could suddenly appear outside his bedroom door shouting, “Police!”
A few weeks after Trump signed the executive order, agents appeared at Marco’s house at 5:30 a.m. After being let in by his roommate, the agents went upstairs, walked past the bedroom of his 7-year-old son, and knocked on Marco’s bedroom door, where he was sleeping with his girlfriend and newborn daughter.
Marco, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used, has no clue why he was targeted. He assumes that it is related to two prior citations for driving without a license.
He was taken away in handcuffs and released a few hours later and is now fighting his case largely on the grounds that there would be extreme hardship on his children if he was deported. Marco has returned to his job as a landscaper, where he does lawn work, including maintaining the yards of some Trump supporters.
Last year, during the election, he would remove Trump campaign signs to cut the grass, then carefully putting them back in the same spot. One client joked with him when he showed up just after the election, saying she figured he would have been deported already.
“They all voted for Trump and they all agree Mexicans are bad, Mexicans are taking our jobs,” he said. “But the people who voted for Trump have me doing their yard work. It makes no sense to me.”
. . .
The nondescript Chinese restaurant in a strip mall is unremarkable in almost every way except one —
That turned out to be bad news for the immigrants who worked in the kitchen, as well as the restaurant’s owner.
All of them had come to the United States five or so years ago, from Mexico and Central America. They all lived together in a house in York, a few miles away from the Aroma Buffet restaurant, with female employees living on one floor and male employees on another.
Among them were Carlos, the Guatemalan sushi chef. And Mario and Sebastian, the Mexicans who worked in the back. A white van sent by the restaurant would take them to work. Some opted to ride the city bus instead.
These workers came not necessarily in pursuit of a permanent life here, but instead to work hard, make good money, and send it home to their wives and children. They did little outside of work and, according to their attorney, none has a criminal record.
They played soccer on their one day off a week, and generally stuck to themselves.
One day in mid-February, the half-dozen immigrants got off a city bus and walked across the strip mall parking lot toward Aroma Buffet. A group of ICE agents lay in wait and promptly apprehended the workers, the same ones who had cooked ICE agents’ food and washed their plates.
The arrest of his workers threw the owner, Jimmy Zheng, into an immediate labor crisis. He called one of his longest-serving workers that morning to tell her they were going to have to shut down, at least for a while.
Zheng told the restaurant’s hostess, Tammy Beecher, that she might want to get a new job. If she did, he said, he would not be offended.
“My first thought,” Beecher recalled, “was, ‘I guess Trump is living up to his word.’ ”
Because the immigration agents ate at the restaurant, they knew where to set their ambush, according to the attorney for the detained workers, Stephen Converse.
When asked about the arrests, ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls said, “ICE does not discuss specific tactics. All enforcement activities are conducted with the same level of professionalism and respect that ICE officers exhibit every day.”
The workers had little legal claim to try to stay or to fight their case, so they agreed to leave the United States.
After a few weeks, the restaurant reopened with a new staff. But Zheng, who did not respond to numerous messages seeking comment, eventually put an ad in a Chinese-language newspaper and sold it.
One of the immigrants who didn’t go to work on the day of the raid is still there. He said through a translator that he sends money home to Guatemala, trying to support his wife, three daughters, and one son.
“We just come here to work,” the 35-year-old worker said. “There are bad people and good people. If they are deporting bad people, that’s fine.”
. . .
The York Immigration Court is part of a large complex on the outskirts of town, a blocky structure jutting as an appendage from the county prison. Judges hear cases in three courtrooms every weekday. It is one the two immigration courts in Pennsylvania; the other is in Philadelphia. Cases from West Virginia and Delaware get also get funneled to York.
Since Trump assumed office, business has been brisk.
Deportations have returned to levels not seen since George W. Bush’s administration began a crackdown of immigrants who committed crimes, an initiative that continued through President Obama’s first term.
In addition to a greater caseload, Trump’s first year in office has seen a different category of immigrant coming before the court.
“They are profiling Hispanics and picking up folks randomly with the pretext of a traffic stop or, more commonly ‘looking for someone else’ that no one has ever heard of,” said Converse, comparing the practice to “ethnic cleansing through deportation.”
The government denies the allegation.
“ICE does not conduct sweeps, checkpoints, or raids that target aliens indiscriminately,” said Walls, the spokesman for ICE.
“ICE continues to focus its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security. However . . . ICE does not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”
Converse, who works out of an office in a two-story office on a busy road in York, said that the cases he used to have were harder to try, because his clients did not stand much of a chance.
“Time after time, it was shoplifting, a DUI, or domestic violence,” he said. “There was no way to fight the case. . . . Now I have cases I can do something with.”
Increasingly, his clients are people with no criminal record who have been here for 10 or 15 years. They have children and are active in the community.
“They don’t just go to the church,” he says, “They’re in the choir.”
. . .
Ben and his family, sitting one day recently in Converse’s office, are among those in the choir.
He was a top student — the salutatorian when he graduated this summer from William Penn High School, a public school in York. He is a prolific musician, playing in the local orchestra, and his family has become a fixture in the community.
Ben is among some 800,000 so-called Dreamers: immigrants brought here by their parents, who were granted protection under Obama but are now at risk — and increasingly on edge — under Trump.
The disconnect became painfully obvious earlier this year when Ben proudly held the presidential award for academic excellence in his hands, with the gold presidential seal affixed to it and several signatures honoring his accomplishment.
But when Ben looked at that distinctive signature of Donald Trump, he recoiled.
“I joked around,” he recalled. “I need Wite-Out.”
To Ben and his parents, there was no small irony in the fact that Trump was honoring him with one stroke of his pen, praising his academic accomplishments, while threatening to send him back to Mexico with another, signing an executive order ending a policy of allowing children brought as minors to the United States to stay.
Ben, who asked that the Globe not use his last name, is a 19-year-old freshman on a full scholarship studying electrical engineering at York College of Pennsylvania. Born in Mexico, he was brought to York by his parents when he was a toddler. He has known no other home.
“I forget I wasn’t born here, that I’m not a citizen, that I could get deported if something were to happen,” he said.
He learned English, along with his father, by watching shows like “South Park” and “The Simpsons.”
While he excelled in school and his family became a fixture in York, the only one in their family with legal status was Ben’s younger sister, who was born here. That changed in 2014 when Ben filed an application to be part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the so-called dreamers program, which allowed children of undocumented immigrants to achieve legal status.
For Ben, that meant he could get a driver’s license and start filling out applications for college. It meant that his skills as a musician could continue to blossom in America.
Then Trump was elected. Ben wept that night, uncertain of what his future would hold.
Trump in September announced he was ending the DACA protections that had allowed Ben to come out from the shadows. Unless Congress acts, Ben will become an illegal immigrant again when his paperwork expires in March 2019, when he’ll be a college sophomore.
He’s not sure what will happen. Will he be deported to Mexico, after living in this country since he was a year old? If he stays illegally, would he be allowed to participate in the co-op work programs that are required for graduation?
“I always joke with my friends: I guess I have to get married somehow,” he says, laughing that one of the only ways to obtain citizenship may be to marry a US woman. “It’s a joke. But it’s a plan B.”
Ben’s parents say they pay their taxes and their car is insured. But at construction worksites where his father works, he is on the lookout for the white cars of ICE agents. The family does not drive long distances, worried that if a tire blows or the car breaks down, they will be vulnerable.
“There are no more dreams,” says his father, Alfonso. “Just nightmares.”