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Immigrants prepare for a day when another might have to care for their children

Hugo Salazar from the Orange County Labor Federation gives a know your rights talk to immigrants waiting to sign power of attorney documents in case they are detained or deported.
Hugo Salazar from the Orange County Labor Federation gives a know your rights talk to immigrants waiting to sign power of attorney documents in case they are detained or deported.
Jill Replogle

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"Buenos días, are you coming for a power of attorney?” On a recent day, Hugo Salazar greets a woman outside the door of the Orange County Labor Federation office in Anaheim.

," the woman replies and heads back to her car to round up the rest of her family.  

Since January, Salazar and his colleagues at the labor federation — an umbrella group for 95 unions in Orange County — have helped several hundred immigrant families complete powers of attorney documents designating someone to look after their affairs in case they’re detained by immigration authorities or deported. 

“We understood that many of our union members had family members who were undocumented,” Salazar said, though he declined to estimate how many. "And we see that literally people were having no plan of action.”

Most clients are using notarized letters to designate someone to look after minor children or to liquidate property. At mass weekend clinics the Labor Federation has held, people have come from San Diego, Imperial and San Bernardino counties — even Las Vegas — to establish powers of attorney.  

“Communities are afraid, they’re anxious, but we’re getting prepared,” said Salazar.

Orange County is home to some 250,000 people living in the country illegally, according to the Public Policy Institute of California — about one in 12 residents. 

A month after the Trump administration issued an executive order outlining expanded priorities for deportation, the consequences of the new policy are still taking shape on the ground. 

Observers say they haven’t seen a spike in deportations in Orange County, but several high-profile incidents – like the Los Angeles man who was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers after dropping his daughter off at school – have put the immigrant community on edge. 

Many are preparing for the worst, including taking measures to ensure their children will be cared for if immigration officials come knocking.

Cecilia Melgoza came to a recent labor federation clinic to assign her friend Elizabeth Marcado, a U.S. citizen, to take care of her 4-year-old daughter in case she is detained.

Melgoza came to the U.S. four years ago and doesn’t have legal residency. 

“All the talk of your kids being given up for adoption or put in foster care is really scary,” Melgoza said in Spanish. “I wanted to make sure my daughter would be safe with someone who was born here.” 

Marcado said she was ready to accept the responsibility of caring for Melgoza's daughter, if need be, until mother and daughter could be reunited. She's the one who suggested Melgoza sign a power of attorney.

"It feels bad to know that it comes to this point where you have to be protected somehow or protect your kids, but I feel that nowadays it's necessary," Marcado said. 

Immigration lawyers are quick to point out that a power of attorney doesn’t transfer custody of a child, it just authorizes someone to care for the child temporarily in the absence of the child’s legal guardian, and to make decision on behalf of the guardian. 

Salazar from the labor federation said he emphasizes to immigrant families that establishing a power of attorney is just one step they should be taking to get prepared. School districts often have their own, unique form establishing who can pick a child up from school if the parent is absent. 

While families waited to sign powers of attorney at the recent clinic, Salazar quizzed clients on what to do if ICE officials show up at their door: Don’t open it; Ask them to slip paperwork under the door; Check to see if it’s a warrant signed by a judge. 

He handed out a one-page comic illustrating the scenario and told people to put it on their refrigerator or tape it to the front door.

His organization has also been handing out lists of resources intended to help people deported to Tijuana, with addresses of shelters, medical centers and government offices.   

On a recent evening, Jessica Rojas from the American Civil Liberties Union gave an immigrant rights presentation to around 100 people gathered in the auditorium of Savanna High School in Anaheim. Many listened through headsets as a volunteer interpreted her words into Spanish. 

"The first thing I want to mention is that everyone, regardless of citizenship status, is afforded constitutional rights,” she said, talking through bullet points written on a well-worn pad of butcher paper.  

Afterwards, a student group peddled snacks outside to raise funds. Marta Rivera, who attended the event, has lived in the U.S. illegally for 28 years. She and her husband own a home and recently bought a car. They have two daughters who are U.S. citizens. 

Rivera said she and her husband recently signed a power of attorney giving their 21-year-old daughter authority over their assets in case they’re deported. They also assigned her to care for her 14-year-old sister, if need be.

Rivera said she’s constantly worried about getting detained, especially at bus stops as she travels to and from house cleaning jobs. But if she does get deported, she said at least she’d get to see her parents and another of her daughters who lives in Mexico with her two children. 

“As we say, my heart would again be split into two, here and there,” she said.