Just after 8am on the first of March, Lucia Gomez sat snarled in traffic on her way to her office when she received a call from an undocumented worker – an elderly member of the labor union where she works as an organizer. Two officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) were knocking at the door of the man’s apartment building in Union City, New Jersey. Should he let them in? Was it unlawful to not let them in? If he didn’t open the door, would they find a way to arrest and deport him anyway?
The man, who makes a living hauling asbestos waste, had been walking home with groceries for breakfast when the Ice officials had intercepted him. They asked for his name, which he gave, and his identity papers, which he said he needed to gather from his apartment. He’d be right back, he told them.
Instead, dashing inside, he locked the door and waited, frozen in fear. Twenty-two years since he left his home for the US, he was careful to renew his drivers’ license each year and had long since received certification to handle hazardous waste that he was still carting in his late 60s. But he lacked legal residence papers.
Through his window, he could see the officers lurking.
Calculating a half-hour drive at least to the man’s home, Gomez phoned an immigration attorney, then another, and a third. No one picked up. She sent them texts. Nothing. It was early. People were probably commuting to work. Perhaps they were out of range. Her heart racing, she burst into tears. “My level of anxiety was through the roof,” Gomez said.
Tough-minded and raspy-voiced, Gomez had worked for years as an immigration advocate before joining Local 78, a union that represents asbestos, lead and hazardous waste handlers in New York and New Jersey. Still, she said, she was at a loss about how best to counsel her union member – unclear on his rights, his obligations, and the rapidly vanishing options for undocumented or ambiguously documented people in Trump’s America.
Among the expanded powers that Trump’s executive orders and accompanying memos have given law enforcement since his inauguration, undocumented immigrants can be arrested and deported on mere suspicion of a broad array of offenses. According to immigrant advocates, that might include selling DVDs on the street, lingering in a park by nightfall or walking through an open gate in the subway.
Under the Obama administration, immigration authorities were restricted to targeting those convicted of committing serious crimes, such as murder or sexual assault. Trump’s new policies have begun to implement his campaign pledge to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and come atop a months-long barrage of statements in which the president and key members of his administration had demonized immigrants as drug dealers and rapists, pouring over the border unchecked and by the thousands to steal jobs from Americans.
Last Thursday, advocates gathered in front of the ICE offices in Manhattan in support of a man who was inside for a mandatory check in with immigration officials, concerned that he would only re-emerge on a bus bound for a deportation center then shortly be deported to Trinidad. In a similar incident in Phoenix last month, a woman who would have been considered low priority under the Obama administration went in her for annual check in with immigration authorities and was instead placed in detention and deported back to Mexico.
If keeping heads down and working hard has long been part and parcel of a life in the shadows, the uncertainty and anxiety across New York and the country has surged, rippling from undocumented immigrants to relatives, friends, coworkers and whole neighborhoods.
In anticipation of crackdowns, people say they have stopped driving, stopped shopping, stopped sending remittances to countries of origin. Small businesses fret about closures from fewer customers. Families are forgoing medical care, afraid to have their identities examined in hospital emergency rooms. Children wonder aloud if they’ll come home from school to find their parents gone.
Some of the fears have been amplified by rumors of Ice checkpoints thrown up at street crossings that spread virally in text messages or on social media. To dampen the potential hysteria, immigrants advocates are counseling that any reports of sightings be immediately verified and photographed. But other fears are justified by mounting evidence of raids and deportations across the country.
On the way to the apartment of the man – who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of his case – Gomez heard back from one of the immigration attorneys she had phoned – Angela Fernandez of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigration Rights. No need to open the door; warrants can be slipped underneath, she said. Failing that, the man could and should stay silent.
By the time Gomez arrived at the man’s apartment, the Ice officers were gone. Why they were prowling, who they were after and whether they would return remained a mystery. With the man’s help and a few strategic calls, Gomez began to piece together the semblance of an explanation.
A call to Union City officials and the local police department turned up a drug charge for someone – no one could specify who – in the man’s building, which contained several apartment units. The man’s son, now 27 and undocumented like his father, had been convicted some years earlier for driving under the influence. He had subsequently failed to complete the community service that a judge had prescribed. Had the DUI charge triggered a “drug charge” suspicion sufficient to send Ice office sniffing? If so, did that mean police and Ice officers were collaborating, an old concern that immigrant advocates have fought hard against?
As Gomez sat talking with the son and his father in his living room, a traffic officer in the street began towing away his daughter’s car. Unlike her brother, the young woman had received legal protection under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (Daca) program, which since 2012 provides temporary protection to children born and raised in the US to undocumented immigrants. Gomez rushed outside. According to the traffic policeman, the woman’s vehicle permit had expired on 1 February. She owed a $140 fine. Could that have been the minor infraction that had apparently set off a chain reaction through law enforcement sufficient to spur Ice into action?
The possibility wasn’t inconceivable. In nearby Staten Island, in early February, Ice officers loitered outside a courthouse and arrested an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who emerged from a hearing, charged with driving under the influence. The man awaits trial on 14 April and near-certain deportation in a jail cell in Hudson County correctional facility, along with convicted criminals, according to Gonzalo Mercado, who works for immigrant advocacy organization La Colmena. Mercado spoke with the man’s wife and daughter. who say that he hopes not to be deported back to the violent parts of Mexico. Instead he told his wife that he was bidding on Canada.
The chilling effect carries a whiff of life in a police state, under authoritarian or semi-authoritarian rule, where security forces strike unpredictably, rarely with just cause, and most often with inhuman efficiency.
The presence of men in uniform doesn’t reassure. It intimidates, inviting the likelihood of a shakedown or an arbitrary arrest. Nightfall brings heightened anxieties about the knock on the door, and the disappearance to detention centers where terms of release are discretionary and capricious. By day, people glance over shoulders, careful about what they say or who might be listening. Laws, when applied, turn on technicalities whose mutability and application serve the whims of the state.
But law enforcement is only one pillar of an autocracy’s machine. A system’s longevity often depends less on foolproof organizational rigor that its capacity to keep fear alive through the bogeyman of uncertainty. People, of their own volition, shrink – from self-expression, from public life, from standing up for theirs or others rights.
For supporters of Trump, the new policies are a necessary assertion of law and order. But in New York, a region of immigrants whose streets are a carnival of pluralism, the hardline anti-immigrant approach of the Trump administration feels, to many, like a dystopian aberration.
“It flies in the face of our historical progress,” said Fernandez. “Unfortunately, racism is part of the DNA of American history. But so are incredibly victorious civil rights and social justice struggles that, when they were won, they led the way for other countries.”
On a recent morning at a parking lot in Brooklyn beside a Home Depot, clusters of day laborers waited for construction jobs. Among them stood Carlos, who knew the price of living as an undocumented immigrant. In 2008, his eldest son, then 18 year old and a senior in high school, was arrested by Ice officials, sent to a detention center in Texas, and deported back to Honduras. Three years later, he was dead, killed by members of a narco-trafficking ring in the climate of insecurity that Carlos had sought to shield his family from when he’d left for the States years earlier.
“That is half of me,” he said, a finger stabbing at his heart, his dark eyes misting.
But even for Carlos, whose temporary work visa expired in 2002, the surge of anti-immigrant rhetoric and likelihood of security crackdowns in Trump’s America are unprecedented. He appreciated President Obama’s immigration policies, he said. There was a logic to them. His son might even have avoided deportation if the Ice raid had come after Daca’s implementation.
The policies of the Trump administration, by contrast, were akin to smashing a leg out from under a table, destroying the fabric of New York work and family life.
“You know what? If I get $600 in my pocket, maybe $50 I send to my country. But the rest stay here. Because we got to pay rent, we got to pay bill. We got to pay cellular, we got to buy food, toy for children, everything. Money stay here,” Carlos said.
As for life as a day laborer, Carlos could not remember a February that had been so bereft of work. He opened wide his empty wallet. All last year, he said, he could count on carrying $400 (he pays for everything in cash), thanks to a healthy run of jobs – mixing and laying cement, tiling, loading truck. But the weeks since Trump’s inauguration have run dry. Perhaps it was a function of a winter halt in construction, although the climate this year has been relatively mild.
More likely, day laborers agreed, Trump’s policies had brought a new season of fear, including among contractors – rightly or not – that hiring an undocumented worker could result in fines of up to $10,000 for repeat offenders. For law enforcement, day laborer sites are among the most traceable and easy to raid.
“The problem right now, people don’t go buy clothes. People don’t go buy shoes. People don’t buy nothing to send back,” he said. “Because we don’t know. We don’t know what happen tomorrow.” A friend recently sold his deli for $30,000, which about half what he paid for it. Better to take the loss, the friend told him, than lose everything.
“When children see police they say ‘Papa, papa! Police is there, let’s go!’ They move from here, they see police, they think police catch them.”
Oscar, another undocumented immigrant, agreed. “We are scared. We are scared. We watch all the time the news,” he said, a pencil tucked behind one ear, a measuring tape fixed to a hip. Since Trump’s policies were announced, he has stopped driving, for fear of being caught without papers. He would, in the unlikely event of being given a choice, ask for deportation to Mexico this time. But leaving isn’t actually an option. Here in the US, he has a son, 10, a daughter, 7, and a newborn.
“They are afraid,” he said. “In the morning, they say ‘OK, you go work? I’m going to see you tonight.’”
After the election, non-immigrant residents in Staten Island, the only New York borough that voted Trump, reached out to La Colmena, the immigrant advocacy organization, to ask how they might help. Since then, the group has assembled undocumented immigrants alongside non-immigrants for sessions that include legal guidance and efforts to build community through activities, such as cooking and Spanish classes.
“The fact that we have these non-immigrants at these meetings, that gives a sense of relief for a lot of people,” said Gonzalo Mercado, the organization’s director. “Especially in Staten Island that not everyone is a Trump supporter.”
Immigrant advocates are careful to weigh preparation for impending crackdowns against the need to keep panic at bay.
“That’s what Trump wants to do,” said Mercado. “He’s campaigning on fear. So we have to turn that rhetoric around – focusing on community, focusing on solidarity.”