Ever since President Trump was elected, people have been asking Pablo Alvarado:
“If I get detained, you will protect me, right? You will help me so I don’t get deported?”
The longtime immigrant-rights organizer increasingly answers, point-blank: Don’t count on it. Get ready to fend for yourself.
“People have to act, he said. “They have to take the bull by the horns.”
He and advocates across Los Angeles have worked overtime the past few months to spread that message.
“This goes beyond handing out pamphlets to people,” said Angela Sanbrano, with the national Latino rights organization Alianza Americas. “We need this information to sink in, to become a part of their conscience, so immigrants understand their rights and don’t give them away.”
Fear and denial can paralyze, but advocates say the community is mobilizing now — more than it has in nearly two decades.
Some groups, such as the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA, are urging people to make appointments for legal consultations now. That way, if they are detained, they’ll already have attorneys familiar with their cases — and know whether they’ll stand a chance in court.
“More than 50% of the time, we find that people have a way to become legalized but they don’t realize it,” said Angelica Salas, CHIRLA’s executive director.
The Westlake group, which fights for immigrants’ rights, has long held Know Your Rights workshops to educate vulnerable immigrants. Since December, it has trained more than 16,000 people, four times as many as by the same time last year.
On a recent Thursday, a group of about 15 men, women and their children from Mexico, Central America and China gathered in CHIRLA’s meeting room to get advice.
“Who has already talked to a lawyer?” asked organizer Tony Bernabe.
“You’re failing,” Bernabe said. “You’re failing. You need to have a meeting with your family to talk and see who’s most at risk.”
They had lots of questions, most about their kids: One woman said she had found someone to look after them if she got detained, but the relative lived in Wisconsin. Another said she was ready to assign a caretaker, but a lawyer was charging her nearly $900 for the power of attorney letter. One man wanted to know where his kids would be taken if Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained him in the street when they were with him.
“Things have changed,” Bernabe told them. “It used to be that they wouldn’t arrest both parents. They’d leave the mother behind to care for the kids. But now, now we don’t know what they might do.”
Ten years ago, CHIRLA posted a “Know Your Rights” video on YouTube that became a nationwide teaching tool.
The nine-minute video was shot when George W. Bush was president and immigration raids were common. It shows actors playing out scenes in which ICE raids a garment factory and a couple’s home and a police officer pulls over an Asian woman and begins to ask immigration questions. Between each scene, two radio show hosts appear with legal tips: Request a signed warrant with your name on it, remain silent, don’t run.
This year, when CHIRLA saw a boost in donations, it made a follow-up on what immigrants should do if detained.
The new video tells the tale of three detainees — from Mexico, Korea and Somalia — and includes more than 200 extras, many of them in the country without legal status.
“It explains to people, in a very visual way, what they need to do if they get detained,” Salas said. “It shows them that they have constitutional rights and the power to do something.”
The video shows how a hopeless Somalia detainee, who has no relatives to help him, increases his chances of freedom by reading law books and fighting for an attorney.
In Ontario, Rosemary and Rene Rodriguez also have been updating their message to reach out to immigrants. In the 1970s, the couple founded a political theater group, Teatro Urbano, in response to the Vietnam War and police brutality.
This year, they partnered with Sanbrano of Alianza Americas to stage performances at immigrant marches and forums. The 10-minute improvised skits often draw in people from the audience.
They act out scenes of immigration officials knocking on a door without warning, and they advise immigrants to carry small cards, affirming their right to be silent.
Rene Rodriguez said he can’t recall a time when immigrants felt this much anxiety.
“I also have never seen organizing on this level,” he said.
The theater director encourages immigrants to go about their daily lives but to keep a low profile.
“Don’t live in fear,” he tells them. “But be very cautious.”
Still, some immigrants are taking risks to educate others.
Geyso Lemus, who is seeking asylum, recently took part in a “Know Your Rights” television broadcast at East Los Angeles College, hosted by Telemundo as part of a new educational series launched after Trump was inaugurated. Seen by millions of viewers, it features lawyers and immigration experts, and people across the nation ask questions.
Lemus sat quietly as the show host described how her young son was attacked and burned by gangsters in El Salvador. He has legal status.
“It’s a difficult situation,” she said. “How do I prepare myself if tomorrow immigration detains me? How do I protect my children?”
At his workshops, Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, is candid.
“The good news is that Trump says he only plans to deport criminals,” he tells people. “The bad news is he thinks you’re all criminals.”
A week after Trump’s election, the activist went on Facebook and asked his network to gather and plan a response to Trump’s deportation plans.
More than 650 people crowded into a meeting room in Westlake. So began a movement of town halls and training that spread to South L.A., Koreatown, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena and El Monte.
For those interested in starting their own neighborhood immigrant-rights watch groups, Alvarado has started offering a daylong training workshop to explain how to handle an encounter with ICE and what to do if someone is detained. His group also launched a text messaging network to sort out raid rumors and squash false ones before they lead to panic.
The gatherings are attended by a wide range of people with and without legal status. Alvarado tells them: Put aside emotion. Focus on strategy.
“When immigration knocks on the door, they won’t knock on activists’ doors,” he tells them. “They’ll knock on your door, when you are alone. You’re going to have to know how to protect yourself.”