NYU School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Teach-In on November 28 is attended by lawyers mostly, working for nonprofits offering legal aid to immigrants. But dotted about the crowd, waiting patiently to ask their questions, are grim-faced New York immigrants and their families wondering what the future holds.
“Hypothetically speaking, what would happen to someone who came over the border and recently applied for a green card but then at the last minute, decided not to leave the country because she didn’t want the ten year ban? Will ICE able to find her?”
The question comes from a heavy-set man in his late thirties with the flag of Cuba emblazoned on his baseball cap. He is asking on behalf of his mother.
Under US immigration law, undocumented immigrants can qualify for green cards if their relatives are lawful permanent residents, but in order to apply they have to leave the country. Unfortunately, under another area of the law, when an undocumented person who has been living illegally in the US for more than one year leaves, they are immediately banned from reentering again for ten years.
“How long has your mother been living here?” one of the lawyers asks hopefully, but it turns out she crossed over the border back in the seventies.
This is why she, and other illegal immigrants like her, chose to stay in the United States and live undocumented. They’d prefer to stay with their families in the shadows than risk a ten year separation.
The man’s primary concern is that his mother will be easier to find now she’s in the system. Children of immigrants remember U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents knocking down their door at 5 o’clock in the morning and dragging their loved ones away forever—the infamous dawn raids. Donald Trump plans to triple the number of ICE agents when he takes office.
The President-Elect’s anti-immigration stance is having a sobering effect on the New York immigration justice community, whose role as advocates is going to get infinitely harder under Trump. Worse still, it’s driving undocumented people into hiding.
Take the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The program was introduced in 2012 by President Obama to defer deportations for children of illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as minors before they were 16. To apply for DACA, the young person has to submit an application to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) with documentation proving they were brought to the country before they were 16, as well as identifying information such as a home address.
Right now, the information is collected by the USCIS on a confidential basis, under condition that it will not be turned over to the enforcement arm of the immigration system. But under Trump, DACA immigrants fear the information will be leaked, or simply given to ICE to devour: their names, their addresses, the names of their families.
In light of this threat, New York legal aid workers and attorneys are advising undocumented young people not to apply for DACA if they aren’t already known by ICE.
“An attorney will advise you of those risks and what [they] know about the status of DACA so you can make an informed opinion. It might not be a ‘no’ if you haven’t applied for DACA before but are already in the immigration system, or in removal proceedings or some other scenario where there is less risk to put yourself out there,” said Danny Alicea, fellow at the City Bar Justice Center in New York, speaking at NYU’s Law School event.
Others are taking the chance to secure documentation now before the new administration takes over and the bar for achieving legal status rises. But most applications take months and there’s already a backlog. By now it’s probably too late.
Mercifully, there is a huge community of activists and legal workers in New York trying to organize themselves for the new administration. Their focus is to teach undocumented people about their rights when their homes and bodies are being raided, and how to calmly repeat the phrase “I do not consent.”
New York is also a designated Sanctuary City, which theoretically means the NYPD does not cooperate with ICE or let them into the city’s jails.
“Thank God, we work in New York state. There’s a lot of resources at our disposal,” said Al Saint Jean, New York City organizing fellow at the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, at a session discussing New York local and state strategies.
Everyone knows the push back is going to have to come from states and cities.
In an address in Phoenix, Arizona, on August 31, Donald Trump painted illegal immigrants as murderers and rapists, and accused those who defend them as un-American for prioritizing their rights ahead of the rights of the American people. Since the election, he has been assembling an administrative staff so rabidly anti-immigrant, that it’s causing a moral panic on the American left not seen since the war on Iraq.
For their own part, undocumented people across the country haven’t been paying much attention to the pleas from Republicans over the past few weeks to give Trump a chance. They’re too busy teaching their children where to hide when the dawn raids come.