Maria B.’s memory of Mexico has withered since she came to America. She recalls a red plastic chair from her home in Celaya and a few faces that she’s sure have become unrecognizable with the years.
The world Maria knows is Smyrna, where she has spent nearly three-quarters of her life. But President Donald Trump’s renewed threats to deport undocumented immigrants en masse have the 20-year-old thinking about that chair, those faces and the daunting prospect that her parents will be relegated to the scenes she barely remembers.
A DACA recipient because she arrived in the U.S. as a child, Maria can apply every two years for protection from deportation and permission to work. Her eight-year-old sister, who has Down syndrome, was born in the U.S. and is a citizen. Both of Maria’s parents are undocumented, however, meaning they could be detained by immigration authorities at any moment.
Trump tweeted on June 17 that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would begin a redoubled crackdown on millions of illegal aliens the following week. Then he said five days later that ICE would hold off for a couple weeks. This past Monday, he said ICE would step up deportations after Independence Day.
Fearing apprehension, more undocumented immigrants in metro Atlanta have stopped driving to work and leaving their homes on weekends. Some have switched to buses or taxis because passengers typically aren’t asked for identification. More are turning to Facebook and Instagram for information about rumored ICE raids and enforcement hot spots.
Maria runs more errands for her mother, so she doesn’t have to leave the house. When her parents do venture out, she calls them at least every hour. If her parents have to go somewhere far, Maria’s 21-year-old sister, also a DACA recipient, tries to drive them.
Maria’s last name was not included in this article to avoid identifying her parents.
Changes in habits, work and play
Unauthorized border crossings soared to a decade high in May, topping 100,000. Trump and others in his administration have said strict enforcement of immigration laws at the border and within the U.S. will deter future illegal immigration.
While some in the immigrant community are merely changing their behavior, others have seen reliable sources of work dry up as wary employers increasingly refuse to contract with undocumented workers.
Among them is Higinio, a native of Guatemala who now lives in Canton. He declined to give his last name. When he came to America illegally in 2011, finding work as landscaper was no trouble. He says day labor has become much harder to find the last three years, causing him money troubles, even as the U.S. unemployment rate tumbled to a half-century low.
ICE says it has increased enforcement against large employers nationwide since 2018, more than quadrupling the number of I-9 audits opened from the previous year.
Higinio stood confidently outside the Atlanta Immigration Court on Ted Turner Drive on a recent Friday morning, waiting for friends in removal proceedings to finish their hearings. More than 50 immigrants were lined up outside, preparing to face judges who could order their expulsion.
“I don’t fear much. You can’t live your life that way,” he said in Spanish. “If it is God’s will for me to leave [this country], then I will leave.”
While Trump publicly announced plans to begin raids on his Twitter account, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said the agency does not discuss future operations. Cox also wouldn’t divulge the number of agents at the Atlanta field office, which covers Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, but said the 26 field offices combined have about 15,000 agents.
Unlike Higinio, many undocumented immigrants are more nervous than before.
Alejandra, who declined to give her last name, works as a shoe vendor at Plaza Fiesta, a Buford Highway shopping center that sells all things Mexican and Central American.
The 32-year-old Salvadoran takes the bus to work, and she’s noticed more co-workers opting for public transportation and taxi services to commute. Anxieties about being pulled over without a driver’s license continue to rise, especially in Gwinnett and Cobb counties, where legal agreements allow county officials to turn in detainees directly to ICE.
Alejandra and other workers said fear over ICE raids also has slowed business at Plaza Fiesta considerably on the weekends - including June 23, the last rumored crackdown.
The trend of staying home when possible has become pervasive among immigrant families, according to William Lozano, head of protection at the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta.
“These are direct threats,” Lozano said. “They’ve seen how it has impacted their community – if it’s not them, maybe it’s a cousin or a friend.”
Lozano said separating families is more visible now near the border, but that the trend of deporting mothers and fathers has not been noticeably different since Trump took office.
Although deportations are climbing again, they haven’t reached the Obama administration’s high in fiscal 2012, when they topped 400,000 nationally, according to ICE data.
An estimated 375,000 undocumented immigrants lived in Georgia in 2017, down from a high of 425,000 a decade ago, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Still, some undocumented immigrants continue to move to Georgia. Ada emigrated from Honduras a decade ago but lived in Arlington, Va. until just a few weeks ago. Ada, who declined to give her last name, works as a toy vendor and said she came to metro Atlanta to live with her 18-year-old daughter.
Steering clear of police, not just ICE
Mexico’s consulate has held well-attended “Know Your Rights” talks for many years, but immigrants seem to be paying closer attention these days, said consulate clerk Mariana Rodriguez. Instructors advise Mexican nationals to refrain from talking until they have spoken to a lawyer if they are picked up by ICE agents. They also tell the immigrants not to lie if they do speak.
Many victims or witnesses of crimes are afraid to call the police because of their immigration status. Rodriguez said a major emphasis of the consulate’s educational efforts is to urge victims of domestic violence to contact authorities. She estimated that 9 in 10 don’t.
Rather than victims of crimes, ICE’s Cox said the agency’s top priority remains arresting convicted criminals and those pending criminal charges. About 90% of ICE arrests by the Atlanta field office since the beginning of fiscal 2018 have fit into this category, according to agency-provided data. The most common convictions or charges are driving under the influence, dangerous drugs, traffic offenses and “immigration,” which can include illegal entry or reentry.
While many immigrants seeking to remain in the country came more than a decade ago, others have arrived recently and tried to go through the legal process as soon as they reached American soil.
Xiomara flew from Venezuela to Atlanta in December and found a job selling party decorations at Plaza Fiesta. After landing, the 55-year-old, who declined to give her last name, immediately began the application for humanitarian asylum. She believes her case will be successful because, as a survivor of colon cancer, she can demonstrate that the medications necessary to keep her alive are no longer available in her crisis-stricken homeland.
She sees merit in Trump’s desire for strict immigration enforcement and believes many undocumented immigrants are taking advantage by not paying income taxes.
Her support, though, only extends to a certain point. “How can they separate parents from their children?” she said in Spanish. “It’s a terrible trauma.”
Maria, the DACA recipient, says that’s what frightens her mother most. That fear is heightened because Maria’s younger sister, Ariana, has Down syndrome. “My older sister and I are old enough to be OK,” said Maria. “But Ariana needs my mom.”
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