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Deportation fears prompt Sonoma County families to draw up emergency plans

Xochitl and Jorge have been thinking a lot about the day federal immigration officials come knocking on the front door of their mobile home.

The couple, who entered the United States illegally more than a decade ago, now live in Santa Rosa with their children, two of them born in the United States. Their 11-year-old son, a U.S. citizen, sensing his parents’ tension and fear, recently told his mother that he wished he was older so that he could help them, somehow.

“I tell him, ‘Don’t you worry about that. You have to live your childhood, be happy,’” said Xochitl, who along with her husband asked that only her first name be used for fear of being targeted by federal immigration agents.

“If something should happen, you have to try to stay together as siblings and know that we’re going to find someone to take care of you. And we’re going to find a way to be together again, whether that’s here or in Mexico.”

Xochitl came to the United States illegally 12 years ago with her oldest daughter to be with her husband, who had crossed the border through the Sonoran desert two years earlier. Like many of the estimated 30,000 undocumented immigrants in Sonoma County, they are?living in fear - some in a state of panic - now that they are in the crosshairs of President Donald Trump’s administration.

Spurred by the growing fear of unprecedented deportations, undocumented residents such as Xochitl and Jorge are drawing up plans for the worst-case scenario. They ask themselves the same questions: Who will care for their children? Do they have enough money in their wallets? Will they have access to their bank accounts? Do their children have valid passports?

The pained discussions amount to disaster plans for hundreds, possibly thousands, of North Bay families.

“There is a lot of panic. I would say that many of them are terrorized,” said Dina Lopez, senior program manager of immigration services at Catholic Charities, a Santa Rosa nonprofit that provides services to immigrants, seniors and the poor.

The fear is real, one Sonoma Valley landscape business owner said last week. Many of his employees are deeply frightened of being deported, said the owner, who is an American citizen but asked to remain anonymous to protect his employees.

“Anybody who is not legal is afraid,” he said, his voice choking with emotion. “There are those of us who are here and are legal and not worried about that. But we will be losing a lot of extended family.”

Immigrants seeking help

Since Trump signed two executive orders in late January promising tougher border enforcement and stepped-up deportations, immigrants, both documented and undocumented, have been seeking help from their employers and groups such as Catholic Charities. Some want to know if they have any rights, while others seek information about what they should do if U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents come for them.

Still others seek guidance on filling out power-of-attorney forms to ensure someone will temporarily care for their children should they be swept up in an ICE operation. Some immigrants who are longtime legal permanent residents are finally starting the process of obtaining their U.S. citizenship.

Traditionally, Catholic Charities offered two citizenship courses a year. This year it’s offering eight.

“We used to serve between 60 and 70 students a year,” said Lopez. “Now we will serve about 210 students in Sonoma and Lake County.”

Lopez said the organization’s immigration services used to submit three to six naturalization applications a week. Now, it is submitting 12 to 20 a week.

Last week, more than two dozen immigrants, many of them undocumented, attended a Catholic Charities workshop on civil rights. The once-a-week workshop usually attracts only a handful of immigrants.

There was an unmistakable air of fear and anxiety in the room as Marcela Morales, a Catholic Charities immigration appeals representative, conducted her presentation. Morales tried to keep the atmosphere light.

“Do you know what your rights are?” Morales asked in Spanish. “Anyone?”

“I cannot be detained without on order signed by a judge?” said one young immigrant.

“I can remain silent?” said another.

“Well, it looks like you’ve all attended my workshop already,” Morales said, joking.

The questions and answers followed in waves. Find someone who will temporarily care for your kids. Avoid living with someone who has a criminal record. If ICE has an arrest warrant for someone in the house, find a way to have that person exit the home, but do not open the door.

“What if they have an arrest warrant for someone but that person doesn’t live there but I do?” asked one woman.

“Do not open the door,” Morales said.

“What if they force the door open?” asked another person.

“Then they have committed a crime,” Morales said.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued administrative guidance for Trump’s executive orders on immigration enforcement. The new DHS policies greatly expand deportation opportunities for ICE, establishing several categories that make a broad swath of undocumented immigrants eligible for deportation.

Anticipating new federal policies

While Trump has repeatedly characterized his enforcement measures as an effort to target undocumented immigrants who are dangerous criminals, the new policies may include people who have used fake documents and those suspected of committing a crime but not convicted. The new policies call for enlisting more police officers as immigration enforcers, building or expanding detention centers and greatly expanding “expedited removals.”

“It really is a mass deportation scheme that includes expedited removal,” said Heather Wise, a Santa Rosa criminal defense attorney with specialized experience defending immigrants.

Wise said all immigrants are protected by the U.S. Constitution, regardless of their immigration status. It is difficult, she said, to predict how many of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants are likely to be detained and deported under the Trump administration’s new policies. There is a lack of clarity about how the new policies will be carried out, she said.

“That’s huge when you consider the unpredictability of the current administration,” she said.

At La Luz Center in Sonoma, workshops are being held to help immigrant parents fill out “power-of-attorney” forms that will authorize someone to care for their children if they should be detained. Such authorization gives the designated person the right to care for a parent’s children, pick them up from school, take them to the hospital and even travel with them.

Juan Hernandez, executive director at La Luz Center, said power-of-attorney forms offer some “peace of mind” to immigrants who may be experiencing a lot of stress, uncertain of their future.

In a state of ‘hypervigilance’

That uncertainty and fear, said one local mental health expert, is causing many immigrants to experience “hypervigilance,” an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity often experienced by those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. Maryellen Curran, director of behavioral and mental health for Santa Rosa Community Health Centers, said patients who are immigrant parents are on “high alert” and talk about the plans they’re making just in case they are separated from their families.

Meanwhile, their children are showing up at SRCHC health centers with somatic complaints, including headaches, stomachaches and anxiety about going to school. They fear that when they return home, their parents will be gone, she said.

For some immigrant parents, their current stress may be triggering previous traumas, Curran said.

“Some of these people have already been through the trauma of crossing the border, they’ve already been separated,” she said. “It’s a repeat emotional experience of separation, or uncertainty and fear.”

Xochitl, the undocumented immigrant parent, said she knows exactly what that separation is like. Twelve years ago, when she crossed the border illegally with her daughter, Citlaly, coyotes placed the 2-year-old toddler in a separate car that was bound for a day care center in San Diego. Xochitl said she didn’t see her daughter for what seemed like an eternity.

“We were separated for about 12 hours,” she recalled. “But for me they were the worst hours. … I said to myself, ‘never again.’ I said ‘if I stay here it will be with her, or if I have to leave, it will be with her but I’ll never do that again.’”

Xochitl said she’ll never let herself be separated from her family again, whether she’s allowed to stay in the United States or not.

“You can’t understand it until you live it,” she said. “It’s … dying alive.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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