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In L.A.’s first suburb, a feeling of unease in the age of Trump

The boy looked tentative as he took his seat at the sixth-grade graduation. Bone-thin with thick glasses, Jose turned to look for his parents in the auditorium.

Moments like this filled his father, Pascual, with a combination of pride and dread. Watching from a few rows back, he studied his son’s body language.

“Hey, champion,” he called out.

Jose, 11, smiled and relaxed.

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The boy, who is autistic, still depended on his parents to get through social events in their Lincoln Heights neighborhood. That made his parents anxious, but the unease was compounded by a secret they guarded.

They were living in the U.S. illegally, and the boy they had raised since he was an infant was not, in the eyes of the law, their son. They had always been too scared to enter the court system to formally adopt him, but these days they regret not having done it before, during what felt like more lenient times.

Jose, born in Los Angeles, is a U.S. citizen — and any day he could be taken from them.

**

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Across the country, the presidency of Donald Trump has put immigrants who lack legal status on edge.

In Lincoln Heights, a neighborhood of more than 28,000 just northeast of downtown Los Angeles, that tension has become a part of daily life. A team of Times reporters spent months there last year to capture how one of California’s oldest ports of call for immigrants has wrestled with the changing tone of the national debate — and made adjustments in day-to-day life.

Lincoln Heights was the city’s first suburb and the landing spot for a succession of immigrants — English, Irish, French, Chinese, Mexican, Italian and, more recently, Central American and ethnic Chinese from Vietnam.

It became a hub of the Chicano civil rights movement. Lincoln High School played a central role in the 1968 “blowouts,” when hundreds of students in predominantly Latino high schools walked out of their classrooms to protest inequalities in education. Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers movement used the Church of the Epiphany on Altura Street as its Los Angeles base. La Raza, the newspaper for the Chicano movement, was printed in the church basement.

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Today, 70% of Lincoln Heights residents are Latino.

Trump’s inauguration last year brought anxiety to a community already buffeted by economic changes that had ripped away many of the toeholds that immigrants once relied upon to start new lives.

Rising rents pushed longtime tenants out and brought young professionals in. Online shopping siphoned revenue away from storefronts where newcomers worked. Local factory and garment jobs had been disappearing for years.

As Lincoln Heights became attractive to a wealthier demographic looking for an up-and-coming, walkable, affordable place to live, low-income residents were beginning to doubt whether they could still make a life here. With Trump in the White House and anti-immigrant rhetoric getting a boost nationwide, those doubts were becoming widely shared.

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Like many immigrants without legal status in Los Angeles, Pascual and his wife, Josefina, have altered their routines, hopes and plans since the 2016 presidential election, fearful of the white vans and unmarked black cars that might come for them with any missteps.

They avoid parts of the city, drive with extreme caution, scan parking lots for what might be federal law enforcement vehicles.

They, like many others in this story, asked that their last names be withheld, fearing that they might become targets of immigration officers.

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In Lincoln Heights, that fear was real. A 48-year-old father of four was detained in February 2017 while taking his daughters to school.

After that, every parent without papers began to see danger in everyday activities: driving, going through airport security, disputing an eviction, speaking Spanish in the wrong place, getting a driver’s license, even applying for legal residency.

**

Lincoln Heights, established in 1873 as Los Angeles’ first suburb, looks much like it did when it was filled with rail workers who built and repaired steam engines at the Southern Pacific shops off Mission Road.

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There are more barred windows, chain-link fences and cheap apartment blocks. But many of the fretted Victorian mansions and Craftsman bungalows remain, cracked with age. So do the Broadway storefronts, the brick churches, the bucolic Lincoln Park and its algal lake, the railroad tracks and Piggyback Yard, the San Antonio Winery, the shuttered city jail, the warehouses, the factories — even the dry grass hills where coyotes roam and cattle once grazed amid scattered black walnut trees.

Less than two miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, Lincoln Heights sits on a densely packed 2.5 square miles that extends from the rutted industrial streets along the L.A. River channel to quiet ravines that feel far removed from the city.

Median family income is just above $33,000 here, about half that of Los Angeles County as a whole, and three-quarters of households are renting.

When Pascual and his wife, Josefina, came to Lincoln Heights in 2001, they found a century-old shingled home by the freeway that the landlord rented for $1,000 in exchange for Pascual’s helping to fix it up — replacing windows, painting, building a staircase and storage.

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Pascual was working his way into management at a metal fabrication company in South Los Angeles. After 12 years in the country, the peasant farmers from Mexico’s Zacatecas state, who had walked across the border without papers, seemed to be on a path to their dream.

Jose arrived as an unexpected blessing, born of tragedy. In Mexico, Pascual’s niece was raped by a bus driver and became pregnant. She had numerous complications during pregnancy, and the baby needed medical treatment not available there.

Josefina and Pascual, who had not been able to conceive their own child, agreed to raise him in Lincoln Heights. “God didn’t want us to have a child of our own, but he brought us one,” Pascual said.

But without legal status, their life was built on a fragile limb.

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When Pascual lost his job during the recession in 2008, he left quietly, without the severance pay others got. He didn’t want to speak up for fear his boss might call immigration authorities. He started working odd jobs — painting, building fences — to get by. Then in 2014, the owner of their home died, and the man’s son decided to sell the house.

The new owner gave the family 60 days to leave.

Pascual researched his options. He could have hired a lawyer to fight for more time and relocation costs. But he decided it wasn’t worth the risk to his family. They packed up and moved to a cramped backyard apartment a 10-minute drive away, and took on a roommate.

They returned to their old neighborhood often, though, to visit family and neighbors, attend church, buy groceries and eat at their favorite cheap Mexican restaurant, Llamarada.

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The forced move reminded them how tenuous their situation was with their son. Although they raised him, and his biological mother gave her blessing for them to adopt him, they hadn’t filed adoption papers because of their illegal status in the country.

Now, with the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants, they felt they were in an impossible predicament. Because Jose had been born in Los Angeles before his biological mother returned with him to Mexico, he was a U.S. citizen. They were not. If they were deported, they knew, they might not be able to bring Jose with them. And if they did, Jose wouldn’t have access to the kind of treatment for autism that Medi-Cal now provides.

With medication and treatment, Jose no longer banged his head against the wall, lashed out with his fists or screamed when he got excited. He smiled openly, hugged his parents constantly and earned some of the highest grades in his class.

Pascual visited a lawyer in March to explore his options.

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The attorney told him a judge would send a social worker to investigate and it was possible they could keep Jose — but with Pascual’s immigration status and unsteady income, it was also possible that the boy would be taken away.

Pascual had also heard that immigration agents were staking out courtrooms to make arrests. He couldn’t take the risk.

So now, like so many others, the couple waits.

The threats from the White House have been difficult for Pascual and Josefina to assess. On the one hand, immigration officials haven’t executed mass deportations. But no one can assure them they are safe.

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Pascual had planned on getting a driver’s license, under a 2015 California law that allows immigrants who are here illegally to apply. Like many, he changed his mind when Trump was elected, for fear federal agents might somehow get his name.

He never speeds, and never engages when another driver rages at him for driving too slowly. He keeps his eyes on the cars next to him, in case they swerve.

“Every time I see a police officer, I think of Tijuana,” he said.

**

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In Lincoln Heights, the February 2017 arrest of Romulo Avelica Gonzalez as he drove his children to school confirmed the fears many held about the Trump administration.

The agents were acting on a deportation order for Avelica that was based on long-ago misdemeanor convictions — for driving under the influence and for receiving a stolen vehicle registration tag. His then-13-year-old daughter wept as she recorded officers loading her dad into a black sedan.

In the week after his arrest, parents without papers in Lincoln Heights changed their routines in big and small ways. They dispatched their American-born children on routine trips to the grocery store and laundromat. They showed up at churches and schools for “know your rights” workshops. They peppered immigration attorneys with calls. They stopped taking their kids to soccer practice in Lincoln Park.

At Academia Avance, the 98% Latino charter school that Avelica’s daughters attend, teachers asked parents last year during March conferences how worried they were about immigration. On a scale of 1 to 5, almost every parent responded with 5.

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A recent Kaiser Family Foundation report appears to back that up, finding that immigrants with and without legal status experienced heightened fear and anxiety in the year after Trump took office. Some parents reported being afraid to leave their homes and said they faced increased discrimination and employment challenges.

Carmen Mora told her sons — 12 and 15 — that if she or her husband were deported to Mexico, they would all go back there together.

“Stop putting fear into them,” her husband, Jesus, told her.

“It’s not fear, it’s being aware of what can happen,” she replied.

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Anna Pesarozzy, 42, asked her children’s godmother to take them to school while she holed up in her apartment for an entire week.

Her daughter Camilla, 16, sensing her mother’s fears, clung to her and cried all the time, terrified her mom would be sent back to Guatemala. Pesarozzy had no idea who would take care of her children if she was deported.

She couldn’t fathom returning to Guatemala. She had fled in 1991 at age 15 after witnessing the murder of two students and two teachers by drug gangs at her school in Tiquisate. When her family received threats, her father sold his home to pay for her passage to Los Angeles.

She lived for several years on the streets as a teenager. When she applied for asylum, the judge said she hadn’t provided enough evidence of the danger she faced at home, and he signed a deportation order. She burned the paperwork.

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Pesarozzy, who asked to be identified in this story by her mother’s maiden name, eventually got a job and worked her way up from a cashier to an accountant at a facilities maintenance firm as she raised four children alone. Her oldest son is studying for his master’s degree in sociology at Cal State L.A., her oldest daughter is at Grand Canyon University, Camilla is a 4.0 student at her Catholic high school in Lincoln Heights, and her youngest, Daniel, is in kindergarten.

After the initial furor over Avelica’s arrest, Pesarozzy went to confession at Sacred Heart Church and asked the priest what she should do.

“Anna, you have to continue your life,” he said, “because your kids need you.”

Now she drives like a hawk, looking for white vans. She knows the cars in her neighborhood, and if she sees one that doesn’t look right, she keeps driving. She grocery shops at Food 4 Less at 11 p.m., figuring it’s a safer time. And she frets over whether it will be safe to go to her oldest daughter’s graduation in Arizona this year.

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As time has passed, some of the fear has receded. But the threat of deportation and the soaring property values have upended many residents’ sense of stability.

Across town, Marisa and her husband lament so many longtime neighbors leaving. The couple have been in the U.S. since 1990, moving from rural Nayarit, Mexico, because they wanted their children to get an education and rise above the life of a campesino. They didn’t like the gang violence in Lincoln Heights at the time, the gunshots at night, police helicopters with their “night sun” searchlights.

Her husband, a gardener who got legal residency, managed to save enough to buy a three-bedroom bungalow.

She appreciates that crime is down and her home value is up. But she feels like wealthy people are invading. They get 20 calls a week from real estate agents asking whether they’re interested in selling. Four of their Latino neighbors recently cashed out.

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Unlike many who have used Lincoln Heights as a springboard to suburbs in the San Gabriel Valley and elsewhere, Marisa and her husband chose to put down roots here and work to launch their children into the middle class. Their four children all graduated from Lincoln High School, and two are in college.

But they know that even those deep roots can be pulled out if they don’t remain vigilant. For that reason, Marisa plans to skip her daughter’s graduation from San Diego State in two years. It would be too risky to venture that close to the border, let alone pass through the immigration checkpoint along Interstate 5 at San Onofre.

She already knows the pain of separation.

Marisa’s oldest daughter was deported; now 31, she lives in Tijuana. Her father and siblings can visit her, but Marisa, lacking legal status, has not seen her for nine years.

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**

With the heated rhetoric and dwindling opportunity, others wonder whether their journey north was worth it after all.

Since the recession hit, more Mexican immigrants have returned to their home country than have come to the United States, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. And in California, many are leaving for cheaper places such as Las Vegas and Phoenix.

When Angelica, 51, first arrived more than 30 years ago, her boyfriend told her grand stories of how easy it was to achieve success in California.

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In reality, she had to work three jobs to get by — at a laundromat, caring for an elderly couple, and as a nanny — leaving her apartment before 6 a.m. and returning after midnight.

She eventually saved $7,000 to go to cosmetology school and opened a storefront beauty shop on Cesar Chavez Avenue.

But after 10 years, she had to close it when digestive problems and anxiety had her bedridden.

Now she works at someone else’s salon on North Broadway and is no further ahead than she was decades ago.

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Her mother died five years ago in Mexico, and her father a year later. She hadn’t seen them since she was 19.

“I paid the price to be in this grand city,” she said.

She doesn’t worry about being deported. Instead, she plans to return to Mexico soon, on her own terms, to spend time with the family she has left.

**

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But returning home is not an option for one group of Lincoln Heights residents — those from Central America who escaped violence to make a life in the United States.

A Salvadoran couple, Ruby and Carlos, had a stable life in El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador. Ruby was an accountant and Carlos was a manager’s assistant at a recruiting company. They had two sons, Carlos Jr. and Elias, both in private school.

But the deportation of thousands of gang members from Los Angeles over the last two decades made their country and neighboring Honduras two of the most dangerous places in the world.

After receiving an extortion demand from a gang member in 2011, Carlos and Ruby quit their jobs and flew to Los Angeles on tourist visas.

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Having lived their lives in a war-torn country-turned-gangland, they had learned to tamp down regret, anger and panic — and keep their stride.

They moved in with Ruby’s cousin in Highland Park. Carlos got a job at a light-fixture factory in Compton and another making deliveries for a restaurant in Beverly Hills. Ruby started cleaning houses.

They found an apartment in Lincoln Heights in 2012 for $980 through a low-income housing program.

The children attended their first year of school with translators.

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Elias fell in love with American football. Carlos Jr. shined in class and grew addicted to “The Hunger Games” books. Their English is smooth.

After the election, their parents sat them down and told them they needed to be very careful. The boys arrived too late to be protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-administration program that granted work permits to certain immigrants who arrived in the country illegally as children.

Last summer, Carlos Jr., 19, got a taste of the difficulties ahead.

He needed a job and looked at McDonald’s and In-N-Out, but they required a Social Security number.

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He did two days of training as a cutlery salesman in Pasadena. When the company went to place him in a job, he put his tax ID number on the application. He was told he had to put his social there.

He apologized and took the train home.

The apartment building where his family lives has stained carpets littered with trash. But their front door opens to a vision of cleanliness and meticulous control: a hall-closet bin for chargers, a neat stack of calculators and a whiteboard that had listed the colleges that accepted Carlos Jr.

He started school at UCLA in September and wants to be a math teacher or professor. He knows he can get the degree, but his job prospects will depend on that Social Security number.

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“Is it going to be worth it to have a degree at all if in the end, the school I apply to teach at is going to say no?” he asks.

He pauses. “All I can do is be optimistic.”

**

Pascual and Josefina’s autistic son, Jose, started middle school in September.

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In October, he turned 12 and his parents hastily put together a Wednesday night party to celebrate. They bought him the soccer video game “FIFA 17.”

Pascual set out in his red minivan piled with construction equipment to get Jose a birthday cake at a nearby Mexican supermarket. He was cautious, always signaling for turns, never speeding.

He had hit another vehicle back in 2000. The other driver, also Latino, took advantage of Pascual’s desperation, demanding $4,000 to avoid calling police.

Pascual paid it. “Ni modo,” he said. Oh well. “It’s better than being reported.”

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At the store, Pascual bought a white, round cake and the woman wrote “Happy Birthday Jose” in red and blue frosting.

He hadn’t seen as much of his son that month, having found steady work near Temecula, where his brother lives, doing remodeling and other handiwork. Driving there and back made him nervous, especially because it was near a Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 15, so Pascual stayed with his brother several nights a week.

When he arrived home with the cake, Jose ran up to him beaming about the FIFA game.

“Dad, I won! I won 2-0!” he said.

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“That’s my boy.”

andrea.castillo@latimes.com | Twitter: @andreamcastillo

brittny.mejia@latimes.com | Twitter: @brittny_mejia

joe.mozingo@latimes.com | Twitter: @joemozingo

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