The sight of an unmarked vehicle with tinted windows idling a few days ago near her business in a Latino enclave of New Orleans unsettled Claudia, an unauthorized immigrant from Honduras. Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement had been parking in the community lately, her neighbors said, and everyone was wondering what they were up to.
“If it was the ‘Migra,’ like everyone figured, I wondered if me and my daughters could be targeted,” said Claudia, a mother of two who has lived in the United States for the past five years. The answer came Tuesday, she said, when she awoke to news that President Donald Trump had vowed on Twitter to begin the mass deportation of families like hers.
Since crossing the border in 2014 and seeking asylum, Claudia had made enough money working as a housekeeper to open a small eatery, where she serves traditional Honduran Garifuna dishes infused with coconut milk, cassava and plantains. But along the way she missed a court date, she said, which means that a judge has issued a deportation order for her entire family.
“Right now, I’m really afraid,” said Claudia, who asked that her last name be withheld because she is hoping not to be found.
In a Monday night post on Twitter, the president pledged to deport “millions” in the latest attempt to crack down on those in the country illegally. His aim appears to include, for the first time, families who have entered the country and either failed to show up for immigration court or defied orders of deportation.
The threat caught immigration officials off guard. Though enforcement agents had indeed been preparing to target immigrant families, no major operations had been scheduled to begin next week. But in immigrant communities across the country Tuesday, there was nonetheless a growing sense of unease. Many families who arrived in recent years have already found jobs and enrolled their children in school, and the prospect of door-to-door raids, now widely publicized on Spanish-language media, has jangled nerves.
“It’s been a very scary environment for a lot of people. Now it’s even worse with what Trump just tweeted,” said Annika Mengisen, an immigration lawyer in New Orleans who is planning to hold “know-your-rights” presentations to help immigrants respond to enforcement actions.
Particularly intimidating is the prospect of children being apprehended alongside their parents. Generally, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has not arrested children when it has conducted operations in residential areas. “In my experience, I have never seen entire families swept up. For me, I have seen mostly adults targeted at their workplaces and at traffic stops,” Mengisen said.
ICE typically carries out raids by surprise, after months of planning. The president’s decision to announce them on Twitter prompted some to see them as a political gesture, especially before his campaign launch for the 2020 presidential race Tuesday night in Florida. But in most quarters, the tweet generated deep concern.
“We are taking this latest tweet extremely seriously. It’s not clear whether recent raids were a prelude to a larger operation,” said Thomas Kennedy, political director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
In recent weeks, the immigration agency has been stepping up arrests in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods outside Atlanta, in southern Florida and several Midwestern states.
“People are worried. They know this could be big,” said Mario Guevara, a senior immigration reporter for Mundo Hispanico in Atlanta who spoke to about two dozen immigrants Tuesday after the president’s tweet.
Home to a large population of unauthorized immigrants, fast-growing Atlanta has been a popular destination for migrant families that began arriving in large numbers in 2014.
Latino immigrants are already facing stepped-up deportations because local police and sheriffs departments have been cooperating with immigration agents to help identify and detain unauthorized immigrants, Guevara said, adding that some families were considering moving to more immigrant-friendly states.
Julio Moreno, an immigration lawyer in Tucker, Georgia, near Atlanta, said his phones began ringing Tuesday with clients concerned about arrest if Trump makes good on his threat.
Moreno said he was skeptical that mass raids could take place anytime soon in Georgia, because the state’s immigration detention facilities were already near capacity — as are most immigration facilities across the country. Still, he was advising his clients to be cautious, offering them the same advice he has been giving since Trump took office and immigration arrests began to spike, especially in Atlanta.
“We’re still recommending that they meet with an attorney to see if they have any options to legalize their status here,” he said.
If not, he tells people, they should prepare for the worst.
“You always want to make sure you have evidence of how long you’ve been here,” he said. “If you’ve ever been arrested for any reason, have a copy of the convictions. Have the birth certificates for your kids. Have marriage certificates, divorce decrees. Have all your legal documents in order just in case something like this were to happen.”
“It will be much easier for an attorney to come in and help you out,” he added.
He also told clients to save some money in case they have to pay to bail themselves out of immigration detention.
The Trump administration has yet to surpass the number of deportations carried out under the Obama administration, which set the record for any single year in 2012, when it removed 409,849 foreigners. After criticism from advocates who derided him for unleashing an overly harsh approach, deportations declined significantly in the later years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
The Trump administration has said the strain on resources caused by increasing border crossings and overcrowded detention centers in the interior of the country are responsible for its inability to conduct more deportations. The administration deported 256,000, a 17% increase from the year prior, though deportations dropped slightly at the end of 2018, to 11,178 in December.
One difference is that federal authorities under Trump have been more likely to arrest unauthorized people without criminal records. The Obama administration directed authorities to consider factors like community ties or possible hardship that other family members would face when deciding whether to deport someone. Those arguments have rarely compelled immigration prosecutors to grant reprieves under the current administration, which has made clear that anyone in the country unlawfully is fair game.
“The collateral damage is out of control,” said Jeremy McKinney, an immigration defense lawyer with several offices in North Carolina. He said that lawyers in his office were aware of some asylum-seekers from Central America being arrested recently by ICE agents, but that the majority of those who had been picked up seemed to have merely been “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
One of his clients, he said, was taking out the trash from his house recently when ICE agents approached and asked for his immigration papers. The man was detained because he did not have legal status, even though he had been cooperating with federal authorities as a witness in a human trafficking case, which has historically been a way to avoid deportation.
“Over and over, the people facing removal largely do not have criminal histories and have extensive family or community ties,” McKinney said.
In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a Peruvian immigrant who had been in the United States for three decades, was detained in late February during a regular check-in with ICE — a requirement imposed after he lost his asylum case years ago.
The man, Walter Gozzer-Sing, the father of two U.S. citizens, had not been considered a priority for deportation until Trump took office, said his wife, Lili Montalvan. He was deported to Peru less than a month after being detained, she said, having spent the better part of his life in the United States.
Montalvan said she was renting rooms in her house now to make the mortgage payments on their home.
Several lawyers and immigrant advocates said they were mobilizing to advise clients of their legal rights if they encounter immigration agents in a raid.
The American Civil Liberties Union was promoting on social media its own know-your-rights tool, which is available in 14 languages and guides users through a variety of scenarios, such as when “Police or ICE are at my home” or “Law enforcement asks about my immigration status.”
Know-your-rights presentations were planned in California and other states in the coming weeks to remind people of their right to refuse entry to ICE officers who do not have a search warrant, as well as their right to remain silent if they encounter an officer on the street.
The materials and training sessions said that those who have already been arrested have the right to speak to a lawyer — though the government is not required to provide one — and to tell immigration officers if they fear torture or persecution in their home country in order to invoke their right to apply for asylum.
United We Dream, an organization led by unauthorized youths, was planning new efforts to publicize its 24-hour Migrawatch Hotline, which encourages immigrants to report enforcement activity in their areas. It has also developed an app, Notifica, which immigrants who are approached by federal agents can use to quickly notify relatives and friends. The tool automatically includes location data.
“We’re telling our community facing Trump’s threats, ‘Do not panic. We have tools to empower you,’” said LuzHilda Campos, manager of the organization’s deportation defense program.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.