Undocumented families adjust to living under the constant threat of being torn apart

“We need a plan.”

Mariana Bellot-Flores, an undocumented immigrant from Bolivia, speaks with her family about the Trump administration. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee
Mariana Bellot-Flores, an undocumented immigrant from Bolivia, speaks with her family about the Trump administration. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

Mariana Bellot-Flores remembers the day last summer when a police officer knocked on her mother’s door.

The officer showed up on her mother’s quiet, tree-lined street in a Northern Virginia suburb, 15 miles outside of Washington, D.C., to speak with Bellot-Flores’ brother. Someone with the same name as her brother was the suspect in a crime. Bellot-Flores’ mother panicked. She refused to let the police into the bedroom to see her son, who is a U.S. citizen with no criminal record.

“My mom flipped out,” Bellot-Flores said, recalling needing to hold down her frantic mother while the police compared her brother to their photo of the suspect. “She got in their face crying and screaming.”

The police left because her brother wasn’t a match. They later arrested another man from his high school with the same name. But the presence of the officer at their home was enough to send the family into a frenzy.

The Bellot-Flores women have reason to be scared. The next time that there’s a knock at their door, it may not be over a case of mistaken identity. It may be because they are undocumented.

Almost two months into his presidency, Donald Trump has kept many of his controversial campaign promises on immigration. He signed multiple executive orders that aim to make life challenging for immigrant families.

“I’m now legally allowed to succeed…Now I have a job. I have an apartment. I feel safe.”

There’s been a lot of focus on Trump’s boldest, most visible promise: the construction of a border wall to deter unauthorized migration. But for the Bellot-Flores’ family, Trump’s other policies — such as expanding the types of crimes punishable by deportation, empowering state and local law enforcement authorities to perform the functions of a federal immigration officer, and building more immigration detention facilities near the border with Mexico — could have a more immediate impact on their daily lives.

The White House has signaled that more executive orders are coming down the pipeline. Despite President Donald Trump’s insistence that being a father and grandfather gives him a soft spot for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as young children, he faces pressure to roll back his predecessor’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, a temporary deportation directive that has shielded upwards of 752,000 undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children.

Mariana Bellot-Flores at work. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee
Mariana Bellot-Flores at work. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

Speculation persists around how the president could go about revoking protection from these beneficiaries. Trump could take away work permits immediately. He could also choose to let permits expire without the possibility for renewal. These unknown variables have stirred up feelings of fear, contempt, and hopelessness within the immigrant community.

For Bellot-Flores, who was brought to the United States from Bolivia when she was just four years old, losing the work authorization she gained under DACA would mean she loses her bi-monthly paycheck from Voto Latino, a Latino advocacy group where she works as a senior digital medial specialist. Other things would fall out of place. She will have to give up an apartment where she pays monthly rent to live independently away from her family. She may also have to guard the fact that she’s undocumented out of fear that people would turn her over to the federal immigration agency.

Thanks to DACA, Bellot-Flores’ whole world has changed. “I can’t even quantify how much less scared I am on a daily basis,” she said in late December. “My self-esteem [has risen] on so many levels because I’m now legally allowed to succeed…Now I have a job. I have an apartment. I feel safe.”

But now that Trump is in office, that sense of safety is at risk of being ripped away. The stakes are very high for her and her family if federal authorities show up at their door again.

“Hola! Mami? Ma?” As 27-year-old Bellot-Flores stepped through the door and shed her winter coat, her mother’s partner Sebastian came to greet her at the door. Sebastian, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, held out a cup of ceviche, a Latin American seafood salad drenched in a mixture of tomatoes, red onions, lime, cucumbers, shrimp, and fish. It’s lunchtime.

On this chilly Saturday, Bellot-Flores has come to visit her family in this Northern Virginia suburb intent on helping the family form a “Plan B” in case federal agents pay them a visit as part of an immigration sweep.

In the aftermath of Trump’s unexpected Election Night win, millions of undocumented immigrants are having these conversations with their family members. What are they doing to prevent themselves from being dragged out of their homes in 3 a.m. during a deportation raid? If they get detained by immigration agents, who are they going to call?

A bowl of ceviche as prepared by Sebastian. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee
A bowl of ceviche as prepared by Sebastian. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

Bellot-Flores is always thinking about how to help her family stay in the United States. She has a running mental checklist. She will instruct her mother not to open the door. Her mother will have a list of people to contact, including a relative who works as a paralegal, if she does hear a knock. If prodded, her mother will ask for a warrant.

Even though her mom doesn’t like talking about it, Bellot-Flores is persistent. “I have to keep having conversations until she listens to me and does something,” Bellot-Flores told me as she sat at the dinner table waiting for her mom to finish up a load of laundry.

“The main thing I really want to do is to have a plan and what we can do if things go south,” Bellot-Flores said. “My main concern is for her not to end up in a detention facility.”

Her mother Sandra, who requested to be identified with a pseudonym for fear of reprisal from immigration agents, came into the dining area and gave her daughter a hug. For a moment, the urgency of Trump’s harsh immigration policies fades into the background. First things first. They’re going to Walmart later to get supplies. It felt like a typical Saturday afternoon. They could talk about a Plan B later.

“The main thing I really want to do is to have a plan…My main concern is for her not to end up in a detention facility.”

But Bellot-Flores wants to talk about a plan now.

“We have to talk about Trump, ma.”

“Nada,” Sandra responded in Spanish. But eventually, she ceded to her daughter’s demand to sit down at the dinner table.

Over the course of an hour-long conversation, Bellot-Flores went through her checklist with Sandra and Sebastian. At times, Sandra clasped her hands and sighed, saying in Spanish that God would not allow immigration agents to show up at their house because they were hardworking and contributing to the economy. As a house cleaner, Sandra could be at risk of a serious police encounter if she was unable to produce a driver’s license, a prohibited document for some undocumented immigrants to obtain in Virginia.

“I don’t think it’s helpful to think so far into the future, especially when nothing is for sure. I don’t want to complicate my life by having to worry and think of a plan that may not even help in any way,” Sandra said.

Sebastian, who has legal status but who is not married to Sandra, sat quietly at the head of the table with his arms crossed, occasionally peering over at the ThinkProgress reporter sitting behind him on the couch.

Eventually, he spoke up — proposing an unpopular suggestion.

“Depending on how the political climate is and how unpleasant it gets, I’m considering moving to a different country, somewhere where there’s less turmoil,” Sebastian said. He acknowledged that it would be difficult to leave behind this house, which he owns. But he said he could live off his retirement savings. He’s not totally opposed to leaving.

The family considered the idea.

This house would need to be quickly sold. Sandra’s son, who’s a U.S. citizen, would be left by himself in America. Bellot-Flores would leave behind the only life she’s ever known since she was a toddler. She would lose her job. She would lose her apartment. Because both mother and daughter are undocumented, they may be prohibited from coming back to the country for a long time, if at all. They quickly rejected Sebastian’s suggestion.

“I’m not scared that anything is going to happen,” Sandra finally said, as Bellot-Flores tried again to explain the seriousness of a Trump administration. “I know God’s watching me. I’m not scared.”

This conversation has been rehashed a few times since, with increasing urgency, Bellot-Flores recounted to me in January.

“If it becomes dangerous for my mother — if there’s a fear that my mom can’t drive anymore — if there are certain things that police are doing like setting up checkpoints and looking for undocumented people, I don’t think I would feel okay or live peacefully knowing my mom’s in that type of danger,” she said in a phone interview. “My mom’s tired of always being scared.”

Mariana chats with her family. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee
Mariana chats with her family. CREDIT: Esther Yu Hsi Lee

Bellot-Flores was also conflicted about staying in a country that she felt has become hostile to people like her.

“I’m overwhelmed — it’s a combination of feeling scared of my well-being and feeling helpless about not being able to do much,” she said.

“It’s a combination of feeling scared of my well-being and feeling helpless about not being able to do much.”

It’s still unclear exactly how the Trump administration will refine, restrict, or rescind the DACA initiative.

So far, the majority of DACA recipients have continued to live their lives without much interruption. But it’s clear that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency will pursue them when possible.

Concerns have only grown among the immigrant community since the recent arrests of a handful of DACA recipients over the past several weeks. The early March arrest of Daniela Vargas — who was picked up by ICE agents moments after she held a press conference to speak out against the Trump administration’s immigration policies — was a particularly stark example.

Just hours before Vargas was released from detention, the ICE agency sent out a cryptic tweet thread clarifying that being a DACA recipient does nothing to shield people from deportation. Rather, the agency said that recipients are merely considered a “lower enforcement priority.”

https://twitter.com/ICEgov/status/839907967692648449

https://twitter.com/ICEgov/status/839908094155100160

As she continues to wait for more news about what changes Trump might make to the DACA program, Bellot-Flores has been preparing.

She has had an uneasy conversation with her bosses about potentially quitting her job. That conversation was difficult, but easier for her to do at a place that supports inclusive immigration policies. And her bosses have promised to support her as much as they can, saying she’s like “family.”

“For us, she’s irreplaceable,” Jessica Reeves, Voto Latino’s Chief Operation Officer, told ThinkProgress during an in-office visit at the organization’s Washington, D.C. headquarters in January.

“We’ve taken a long time to grow our digital presence to where it is as a well-oiled machine. She brings a combination of expertise — like having both the video and content creation, but also having such a deep understanding of the constituency. This is really hard to find an all-in-one person.”

“It’s a real possibility that I might leave.”

Overwhelming research from various think tanks has shown that removing people like Bellot-Flores from the workforce could cause economic damage.

A lack of DACA workers in the United States would slow down growth to many sectors of the economy. Roughly 21 percent of DACA recipients work in educational and health services, two industries that will suffer from a glut of workers after Baby Boomers retire. A January 2017 report from the libertarian think tank Cato Institute cautioned that deporting the full DACA population could cost the federal government $60 billion “along with a $280 billion reduction in economic growth over the next decade.”

Yet for all the macro-level issues stemming from mass deportation, it’s also an intensely personal issue. Undocumented immigrants like Bellot-Flores have been living their lives in uncertainty, holding onto the hope that they won’t be targeted in the next round of enforcement operations.

“Little stressed because of all the raids,” she texted in one of the last exchanges she had with me in early February, soon after the ICE agency announced the completion of the first round of mass raids. “For now, I’m just having to figure out an emergency plan for my mom.”

And she’s coming to terms with the possibility that something that once seemed impossible — taking Sebastian’s suggestion to leave the country — might be her best option one day.

“I would probably lose my job and try and stay as long as possible,” she said. “But it’s a real possibility that I might leave.”