‘You can’t even walk anywhere without fearing you may get caught’: Immigrants in U.S. illegally prepare for possible deportation

A Salvadoran immigrant who is in the U.S. illegally walks with her son, 5, and daughter (not visible in a carrier) after paying gas and power bills. “I haven’t been out in almost a week,” she said. “I’ve been afraid."
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

New details about President Trump’s immigration crackdown have heightened fears among people in this country illegally, with some saying they are now preparing for the possibility of deportation.

The Trump administration swept aside nearly all restrictions Tuesday on targeting for removal the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally, a vast expansion of the federal government’s deportation priorities as the president pursues his promised crackdown on illegal immigration.

In a pair of memos, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly instructed immigration officers to widen the net and set the stage for hiring thousands more enforcement agents as he moved to implement the executive order on illegal immigration that Trump signed during his first week in office.

The memos were reverberating on the streets of Southern California and beyond.

On a cool, breezy morning, Cristina Reyes, 33, of Lynwood, sat quietly under a small palm tree as she watched her 17-month-old daughter, Carolina, walking around a patch of green grass.


A mother of three, she told her daughter to come back and tried to trick her by telling her that the Lynwood Trolley was coming and she would miss it.

On any given day, Reyes said she would have been driving, but last year, someone stole her car.

“It wasn’t brand-new or anything like that. It was old and beat up, but it helped getting around,” she said. “My husband and I were looking at buying a new one, but then we started hearing about the immigration stuff and we realized that if we get deported, it would just be a waste of money.”

Reyes had never thought of such things before. She never second-guessed walking out of her home to go to the store or even purchasing items like furniture they may end up losing at any given moment.

“At first, I wasn’t too concerned about it, to be honest,” she said. “But now, I worry. I told my husband, ‘Let’s be prepared. Let’s just save our money in case they end up sending us back. We can at least have something to start with.’ ”

Reyes and her husband left their home in Puebla, Mexico, and entered the United States illegally in 2005.

“Coming here was very difficult, but we did it for a better life,” she said. “I was pregnant with my first son, and we wanted something better for him.”

She has had two children since then. The oldest is 10, and her other son is 3. She said if they get deported, she hopes they can bring their children.

“All of this is very infuriating and stressful,” she said. “You can’t even walk anywhere without fearing you may get caught and deported.

“It bothers me I have to think about all of this,” she said. “Going back would be hard. It would be hard for the children because they’ll have to adapt to changes.”

Obdulia Duran, 59, of Paramount, sat quietly on a bench outside of St. Francis Medical Center. She had come to visit Aurelio Solis, 67, who is married to Duran’s husband’s cousin. She said Solis has diabetes and his kidneys are starting to fail. He’s been in the hospital for eight days.

“I was just thinking what would happen if I get deported,” said Duran, who is in the country illegally. “What would happen to him?”

Duran said she pays half of the $630 monthly rent. If she were to be deported, Solis would end up homeless.

“He joked he’d sleep at the park or in his car,” she said, starting to cry. “It’s not funny. He’d probably die. He’s not looking so good.”

On top of the immigration problems and Solis’ health, she worries she won’t be able to provide for her family back home. She came from Mexico to the United States in 2001.

She said she came to the country to pay for her daughter’s college education and to save money to build a house for her and her husband, who is in his early 60s and retired. She also provides money to the family to buy food and other items for her granddaughters.

“I’m not afraid if I actually get deported,” she said. “Sooner or later, I’m going back home.

“But I worry for everybody else,” she added.

“I think the immigration laws are unfair. I think it’s unfair immigration officers just grab people and don’t let them at least get their things,” she said. “I want to at least be given three months so I can send stuff back home. I worked for it.

“I find it unfair and sad for the children who were just born but whose parents are undocumented, for the children who go back with their parents who have been deported. They have to adapt and live in a country that’s really not theirs.”

She said she never thought immigration issues would get this bad in the United States. She also didn’t think Trump would win the election.

“I never saw any of this coming,” she said. “It’s really just a sad thing.”

Ana Ariola Mendez, 76, chatted with another woman about the new guidelines while selling cigarettes on a quiet stretch of South Alvarado Street in Westlake.

“Trump is saying he’s going to pick up everyone, whether they’re criminals or not,” she said, clutching three packets of Camels in one hand.

Mendez said she used to sell diced fruit but got tired of getting tickets and having her food thrown away. She’s glad Los Angeles decriminalized street vendors but worries about the rest of the country.

“They’re going to be left with Americans, who don’t like to work,” she said, only half-joking.

Though Mendez, a legal resident, thinks no immigrant is safe anymore, she said she refuses to be scared.

“I’m not bothering anyone.”

Ricardo Cortez, who is in the country without legal status, had an inkling of what may come after Trump won the presidency.

Cortez, who moved to the United States from Mexico City 30 years ago, said threats of deportation always existed — especially under President Obama, who removed 2.5 million foreigners.

But this time is different, he said.

He watched pedestrian traffic on 4th Street in downtown Santa Ana — the pulse of Orange County’s Mexican American community.

“With what he signed, now we’re all vulnerable,” Cortez said, looking around. “The bad ones and the good ones who are here just trying to work.”

Cortez said he’s not fearful, but definitely is nervous, about what may come next. He said he carries around this low-simmering anxiety.

“We all had this false notion that we would always be embraced by the United States,” Cortez said. “Most of us don’t have a Plan B. We only thought of the American dream.”

He owns a travel agency and clothing store on 4th Street in Santa Ana, but said he never had the opportunity to legalize his status, despite a desire to do so. Now, it would be very difficult to become a legal resident, he said, because he was caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization in 2006 during a visit to see family.

The 54-year-old said he doesn’t know what he’ll do if he gets swept up by immigration officials and removed from a place he’s called home for most of his life.

He’ll fight to stay, he insists. If he loses, he may sell his businesses, buy a vehicle and eke out a living as a taxi driver in Mexico.

“I would have to start from zero again, in Mexico,” he said. “At my age, it’ll be difficult.” But what worries him most is being so far away from his 26-year-old son and 3-year-old grandson — both U.S.-born citizens who live in Orange County. He has grown children in Mexico, too.

“I left my children when they were very young in Mexico,” he said. “I can’t imagine now leaving the U.S. and leaving my young child, again — my young grandson. It would be very difficult.”

Veronica Coban, 35, was walking with her son, 5-year-old Jaden, and carrying her 1-year-old daughter, Allison.

She had just paid the electricity and gas bills.

“I haven’t been out in almost a week,” she said. “I’ve been afraid to come out.”

“The other day, my friend said [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] came knocking at her door. She didn’t open it, but that made me anxious.”

Coban has been in the country for 11 years. She said her husband is also in the country illegally. She doesn’t work. Her husband collects metal to recycle.

She said she immediately became upset after hearing about Tuesday’s new immigration enforcement.

“If [the president] wants us out of this country, fine,” she said, describing Trump profanely. “Deport me, but at least deport me and my family so we’re together.”

“I really wish I could find the right words to tell the president how I really feel,” she said.

Sergio Aguilar, 48, of East L.A. played a snare drum and sang loudly in Spanish inside El Gallo Giro, a Mexican restaurant: “No need to worry. Yesterday’s gone and we made it through another day.”

Aguilar came to the United States with the dream of becoming a successful musician. He came legally under a work visa, but it expired years ago and he stayed in the country illegally.

“I have not documents,” he said. “I’m not worried though. I’m a musician. I’ll find work wherever I go.”

Aguilar said he wasn’t surprised by Tuesday’s immigration announcement.

“Not one bit surprised,” he said. "… It was bound to happen, but again, I’m not worried.”

“The worst thing is we all go back home to Mexico. I’ll be going back with my fellow companions.”

He said he has no beef with the government and has no criminal history.

“He can do whatever he wants,” he said of Trump.

He said a lot people in the area are afraid. He is constantly hearing about la migra, shorthand for immigration officials.

“I hear la migra is here, la migra is there and la migra is over there,” he said. “Too many people are scared and anxious.”

“Not me. I’ll tell you what, I’ll call la migra myself and tell them to come, and I’ll wait right here for them.”


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3 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Sergio Aguilar.

2 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Veronica Coban.

12:45 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from immigrants from Santa Ana.

This article was originally published at 12:35 p.m.