Cindy and her three children live in a tiny bedroom in an apartment shared with two other unrelated adults outside a major U.S. city.
Born in Guatemala, Cindy — who does not want her last name used — was brought to the U.S. when she was 5 years old. Yet she still has no legal status.
“Even though I don’t have papers, I feel that I’m from here,” Cindy says. She has been working at various jobs since she was 17.
Now 29, she has a baby on the way and wants to stay in the only country she knows, so she can make a better life for herself and her American-born children.
“Of course I’m proud of having been born in Guatemala, but I wasn’t raised there. I don’t know the culture, and I don’t know what it’s like to live there,” she says. Her biggest dream, she adds, is to get residency status in the U.S.
But now, more than ever, she is scared of being caught and deported.
Cindy is among an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., more than half from Mexico and other Latin American countries.
Some of them were targeted last week by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which launched enforcement actions that rounded up 680 undocumented immigrants in cities around the country.
ICE said the recent operation was no different than ones it conducted during the administration of former President Barack Obama. Those also targeted individuals with criminal records, the agency said.
“President [Donald] Trump has been clear in affirming the critical mission of DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] in protecting the nation, and directed our department to focus on removing illegal aliens who have violated our immigration laws,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in a news release Monday.
Kelly’s statement also said the specific focus is on those posing a “threat to public safety and those charged with criminal offenses.”
One of Trump’s signature campaign promises was to crack down on illegal immigration, promising to deport up to 3 million people involved in criminal activity.
On January 25, he signed an executive order to protect public safety that expanded the government’s reach in rounding up those involved in criminal activity or with criminal records.
On Sunday, Trump, in a tweet contradicting ICE’s assertion that is operation was routine, tweeted: “The crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise. Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!”
Those were not the only people netted in last week’s operation, however.
Homeland Security said that 25 percent of the undocumented people rounded up last week were not criminals, and they will be “evaluated on a case-by-case basis and, when appropriate, arrested by ICE.”
Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), told reporters Friday that she has had 30 years’ experience working with ICE and that last week’s operations were “not normal.”
Salas said her organization received an unusual number of calls while the operation was ongoing in Los Angeles, including reports of people being seized in their homes and on their way to work.
The immigrant community is full of fear. Rumors of ICE checkpoints and sudden detentions are rife.
At a Catholic Charities center in Washington’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, long a Latin American immigrant community, people standing in line waiting for food assistance spoke openly of their fears of being deported.
Catholic Charities staffer Rodrigo Aguirre says he has noticed a difference from a year ago.
“We’re seeing people more afraid of asking for help because they are fearful of the consequences,” Aguirre said. “Fear that their name might be given to immigration and that they will eventually be deported.”
Such is the case of a Salvadoran woman waiting for food assistance who gave her name only as Hemelina.
She said she came across the border illegally last year, fleeing a husband who beat her, as well as gang violence.
Catholic Charities immigration lawyer Smita Dazzo said Hemelina could qualify for asylum, if she provides credible proof before an immigration judge.
Dazzo said that in her experience, most of the undocumented immigrants she sees have a well-founded fear of persecution.
“The majority of people who are coming here are really fleeing for their lives,” she said. “And I don’t think it gets the amount of coverage it merits. It’s really, really scary for these people and some of them really, honestly feel like they have no choice” but to flee.
Dazzo added she is now consulting with undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for years and only now, after Trump’s inauguration, are trying to fix their status.
But with so many seeking to stay, supporters of Trump’s immigration policy say the U.S. must impose limits.
Dan Stein, who heads the Federation for American Immigration Reform, notes that in the past 40 years, the United States has had its highest sustained level of immigration in its history, a level he considers unsustainable.
“There are simply far more people who would like to move to a country like the United States than we can possibly handle and still provide a good quality of life and a shot at the American dream for people who are here today,” Stein says.
Yet the question remains over what happens to the millions of law-abiding undocumented immigrants in the U.S., with families and jobs.
Immigration activists say an immigration reform law that allows them to stay and obtain some kind of legal status is the answer.
As Dazzo, the Catholic Charities lawyer, put it: “There are a lot of people who come here as children that are really upstanding citizens. They work hard, they’re family oriented — they’re exactly what you hope that Americans are.”