Fearing immigration crackdown, some go into hiding while churches prepare sanctuaries

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President Donald Trump's aggressive enforcement of immigration laws has changed the lives of thousands of people in Southern California who, fearing deportation, have slipped deeper into the shadows and now step outside only when they have little choice.

Their way of living changed sharply from life a few months ago. Under the Obama administration, deportations were regularly carried out, and at historically high numbers, but in recent years they were largely limited to unauthorized immigrants accused or convicted of serious crimes.

Deportations in such cases continue. But under Trump administration policies, any crime — including living in the country without authorization — is sufficient for immigration agents to carry out arrests and detentions.

Immigration attorneys and advocates say they have seen an upturn in arrests in recent months.

Where once immigrants could spend decades in the country working and raising families, a much stricter enforcement has taken hold and immigration agents have swept up parents and young adults granted protection under Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that gave temporary residency and work permits to those brought to the country illegally as children.

In recent weeks, agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE made high-profile arrests of a father dropping off his daughter near her Highland Park school, detained a DACA recipient from North Hollywood in San Diego, and arrested a man outside a Pasadena courthouse.

Living in the shadows

With more frequent reports of immigrant arrests, one family from Honduras living in the country illegally has taken heightened precautions.

Carmen and Marvin, who don't want their last name used or exact location revealed because of their immigration status, share a tiny studio apartment with their three children that overlooks a busy intersection not far from downtown Los Angeles. The space is furnished largely with donations from a local church group.

From their windows, they have a good view of the street below. These days, they spend a lot of time looking out. 

“When I’m dropping off my kids at school, I go with great fear," Carmen said in Spanish. "When it’s time to go pick them up, I stand at the window and look to make sure there are no police outside.”

If there’s a knock at the door, Carmen said she jumps, and tells the children not to answer. “It might be the mailman, or it might be the manager," she said. "But I think it’s immigration.” 

Both in their thirties, Carmen and Marvin are among those staying out of the public eye whenever possible in hopes of avoiding deportation. 

The family spent a long, fraught year from 2014 to 2015 working their way to the U.S. from Honduras. They used to own a small business selling clothes in San Pedro Sula, a city that has made headlines in recent years as a center for gang violence.

While there, Carmen said they paid extortion fees to criminals as a cost of doing business. The family fell behind on payments. One day, she said, the gangsters came after them with knives and guns.

“They … injured me here in my heart, and my breasts, they cut them here. Here, in my back, I have the shot. Here is where they put in my tubes, to drain my lung,” she said, describing her wounds.

Lifting up her T-shirt, she shows rough scars on her chest, abdomen, back and side. She said she was stabbed seven times. Her husband, Marvin, still has a bullet in one knee, she said.

Both were hospitalized, Carmen said. Once they were well enough, they fled the country with their three children, now ages 13, 6 and 3. Once they reached the U.S. border, they presented themselves to officials and asked for asylum. 

Neither has been granted asylum yet. Marvin just filed his paperwork with the help of a local church that is paying for his legal costs. Carmen has yet to file her application. They said they've had to wait because low-cost and pro-bono legal providers are backlogged with cases.

Meanwhile, Marvin, who has found work as a day laborer, said the news about immigrant arrests is paralyzing.
 
“The truth is that we hardly ever go out," he said. "When we go to work and we have to go very far. We don’t go because we’re afraid that there will be a checkpoint, or that the car that we are going to work in will be stopped. The truth is, there is a lot of fear …. you don’t even want to go out, or to go shopping, nothing – it’s very scary.”

This is the way many unauthorized immigrants live these days, said Guillermo Torres, an organizer with the faith-based group Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice.

“You're probably going to have a lot of members of the community just staying home, trying to stay away from public view,” Torres said.

The group has helped Carmen and Marvin get on their feet and connect with church congregations that have assisted with their asylum cases. 

Some churches are offering even more help. Recently, Torres' group held a training session for church members who plan to house unauthorized immigrants who fear deportations.
 
“We call it Sanctuary Training 101,” Torres said.
 
Nearly 30 congregations have signed up to learn how to provide sanctuary to immigrants, a practice that dates back to the civil wars in Central America in the 1980s that sparked a major migration north. At the time, several U.S. churches housed newly arrived migrants fleeing the fighting.

The sanctuaries also recall the safe houses created during this country's own civil war. They were part of Underground Railroad, a network of routes and houses helping slaves escape from the south to free states in the north.

A church makes a sanctuary

At North Hills United Methodist Church in the San Fernando Valley, Rev. Fred Morris declares his church is just about ready. On a recent afternoon, he showed off a comfortable-looking room now used as a library.
 
“This would be the living room for a family," Morris said, pointing to bookshelves and a television set. "We’ll take out this conference table and put in a sofa and a couple of chairs."

An adjacent room could be a bedroom, he said. Newly remodeled bathrooms with showers are just outside in the hall.
 
The church has a large kitchen, and a gym that Morris said could hold dozens more people. There aren't any cots yet, but they have 600 blankets stored in a shipping container outside.
 
"If somebody needs to rush in here because ICE is after them, we are prepared to have them come in, and we will put them in our gym and let them sleep there," Morris said. "And we will feed them, and we will take care of them."
 
The sanctuaries rankle foes of illegal immigration. It's legally questionable, said John Eastman, a professor of constitutional law at Chapman University.  
 
"If you’re harboring a fugitive, you are facilitating somebody breaking the laws of the United States," Eastman said. "There are both harboring and aiding and abetting laws that would apply to them. The fact that churches are not prosecuted, that is a prosecutorial discretion issue, rather than do they have some entitlement to ignore the law."

Pastor Morris said he knows there are legal risks, but he said he doubts the Trump administration will risk the negative publicity that would come in raiding churches.

But this has been an unconventional president who has pledged to shore up the country's borders and deport the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country without authority, including about 2.5 million who reside in California. 

Back in the tiny studio that they call home, the Honduran couple Marvin and Carmen say they're determined to remain in the U.S. They say they are terrified of returning to the violence they fled.

Marvin looks out the window with Francine, their three-year-old daughter, as Carmen sets the table for a frugal lunch of bean soup, seasoned with chicharrones.
 
As an asylum seeker, Carmen said she wants to follow the rules. When she and her husband were both detained on arriving in the U.S., they were told it is their responsibility to check in regularly with immigration officials as they apply for asylum.

Carmen said she usually does so by phone. But later this month, she has an in-person meeting with immigration. She shakes visibly as she talks about what might lie ahead.

Like some others in her situation, she knows of at least one case in Arizona where a woman who spent years checking in with immigration officials without incident was recently held and later deported.

Moreover, as relatively recent arrivals, they are among the federal government's priorities for deportation.

Despite this uncertainty, Carmen said she plans to keep her immigration appointment.

“I don’t want to go, but I have to go," she said. "Because if not, they will come and detain me. They will come looking for me.”

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