Hope and Fear: How the Fortunes of Five L.A. Immigrants Have Changed Since Trump Took Office
by Foster LLP, on News
From Dreamers to asylum-seekers to Green Card holders, the president’s policies have provoked anxiety and heartache for immigrants at every step
For a few hours almost every month, the West Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center is transformed into a courtroom. A giant American flag hangs above the stage at the center of the hall. “All rise,” says a clerk, and between 3,000 and 5,000 applicants for citizenship rise from their stackable chairs. Beyond them, another few thousand friends and relatives also stand. A black-robed judge takes his or her place behind a podium and leads the applicants through the Oath of Allegiance, some version of which has been required of new citizens since the country’s first Naturalization Act was passed in 1790. “I hereby declare,” the oath begins, “that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty.” Once the applicants have sworn “to bear true faith” to “the Constitution and the laws of the United States,” and to take up arms on its behalf when required, each judge delivers a brief welcoming speech. “We are a society of freedom,” promised Judge André Birotte Jr. at a ceremony in October, “where your dreams and aspirations will come true.”
It is at that point in the ceremony that an enormous image of the president’s face takes shape on the screens at each side of the stage. Trump’s eyes are squinted, his teeth even and small. He reads from a teleprompter, biting off the words: “No matter where you come from or what faith you practice, this country is now your country.” He makes it sound like a threat. At every ceremony I attended, applause for the video was sparse, but many of the people in the hall were there because of Trump. I interviewed dozens of them. Nearly half said that Trump’s election had been a factor in their decision to seek citizenship. Sitting next to me at the ceremony in October was a man from El Salvador named Diego Ortiz. He told me he decided to seek citizenship after the election for a very practical reason: out of fear. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like in a month,” he confided.
Ortiz had arrived in the U.S. in 1989, shortly before his third birthday. An aunt carried him over the border; his mother and brother had fled El Salvador’s civil war two years earlier. In 1990, Congress granted Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, to Salvadorans like the Ortizes, allowing them to live and work here legally while it was unsafe to go home. He remembered waiting for hours with his mother in cold federal offices as she re-registered for TPS each year. After decades of anxiety, many missteps and thousands of dollars lost to fraudulent lawyers, Ortiz and his parents were granted permanent residency. Their trajectory is the sort that we talk about when we speak of the American Dream: His father found work as a landscaper and his mother cleaned houses, but Ortiz finished college and now works for an environmental advocacy group in the San Fernando Valley.
After Ortiz picked up his naturalization certificate and joined 3,419 other newly minted citizens filing slowly out of the Convention Center, the court broke for lunch and convened again promptly at 1:30 p.m. to swear in another 3,542 people. For most of American history, all of this – the pageantry and the vast bureaucracy behind it – would have been unimaginable. In 1885, when the president’s grandfather, Friedrich Trumpf – his family had already transitioned from Drumpf – sailed into New York Harbor from Germany, Ellis Island had not yet opened. There was no federal immigration department and no border patrol. Visitors were not expected to carry passports or visas. To most Americans, the notion of an “illegal immigrant” would have elicited confusion. Young Trumpf likely faced a cursory examination to make sure he was not a “convict, lunatic, idiot.” Then his name and age were recorded in a handwritten ledger along with his “calling”: “none.”
Today, the portion of Americans born abroad is roughly the same as it was then – about 13 percent. Little else remains the same. There are A visas and O visas now, SQs and H1-Bs. There are more than 15,000 immigration lawyers trained to navigate an almost impossibly complex array of laws and procedures administered and enforced by the 100,000 employees of three federal agencies with a combined budget of up to $27 billion. They are the ones who decide who to keep out, who to let in and, quite literally, who we as a nation may yet become. They run a machine made up of courtrooms and offices in hundreds of federal buildings around the country, of cells in both government-owned and private prisons, of fleets of vans for transporting prisoners and SUVs that patrol the border as well as streets and neighborhoods hundreds of miles from it. The machine functions to sort humans into piles – ejecting some, granting some full acceptance, condemning others to a life at the margins. It helps to produce, and enforce, the unacknowledged caste system that orders our society. Last year, it deported 226,119 people, granted permanent residency to over a million others and citizenship to 703,000 more.
The machine answers now to Trump, but it was Obama who perfected its deportation apparatus, ejecting nearly 3 million immigrants during his two terms. We owe much of its infrastructure, from an expanding detention system to the legal framework underpinning most detentions and deportations, to Bill Clinton. Whatever they say on the campaign trail, whether they promise inclusion and a path to citizenship or shout about anchor babies and MS-13, politicians of both parties have stoked it and maintained it – and the social hierarchy that it perpetuates – with meticulous care. No matter the rhetoric, the machine continues to hum. It hums when the conversation gives way to shouting, and it keeps humming when the pundits move on to other things. But to the human beings caught up in its workings, it feels less like a machine than a huge and fickle monster, by turns generous, petty, merciless and cruel.
But rhetoric matters. Trump ran for office in large part on a promise to keep immigrants out. As a result, the national conversation on immigration has never in recent memory been more panicked, divisive and calculated to spread fear in immigrants and citizens alike. In the 14 months since his inauguration, Trump has been unable to achieve any of his legislative goals on immigration, but he has nonetheless had a powerful impact, sharply restricting travel from six Muslim-majority nations; rescinding an Obama-era policy that allowed 800,000 immigrants who arrived in the United States as children to live and work without fear of deportation; terminating the Temporary Protected Status that permitted nearly 300,000 Central Americans and Haitians to live in this country with some measure of security; and unleashing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to stage ever-more spectacular, punitive and headline-grabbing arrests. The crackdown has been particularly harsh in California, which is home to a quarter of the country’s immigrants.
Trump’s policies have provoked fear and uncertainty at every rank of the ladder – from the relatively privileged to the absolutely excluded, from those for whom the security of citizenship will come easily to those for whom it will remain a distant dream. What follows is a snapshot of the machine, a portrait of the monster, told through the lives of five residents of Los Angeles county, revealing how their fortunes and their dreams have changed since Trump took office, and what sort of a country we are becoming.
The Door Swings Open
“I sort of feel guilty,” Helen Kennedy confessed the first time we spoke. “I know how lucky I am.” That was July. Three months earlier her dad had fetched her Green Card from the mailbox – in his underwear, she laughed – outside her parents’ home in Dorset, in southwest England. Six months before that, her husband, Kai, who was born in New York, had filed the first of many forms to request permanent residency in the United States on her behalf. That would have been an I-130 form: “Petition for Alien Relative.” When the alien in question happens to be a spouse, a solid I-130, one Los Angeles immigration lawyer told me, is “like the platinum card.” There is no smoother path to living legally as a foreigner in the United States. The dangers of “horrible chain migration,” to borrow the president’s phrase, have become a common Republican talking point – the White House proposed continuing to allow citizens to sponsor their spouses and kids, but not their parents, adult children or siblings. Ironically, the family-unification provisions of U.S. immigration law were originally instituted as a gift to the nativist right. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act ushered out per-country quotas but attempted to maintain the country’s then overwhelmingly white majority by freely granting citizenship to the immediate family of existing U.S. citizens, most of whom were of European ancestry.
Kennedy is 37 and tall, with striking blue eyes and blond hair that tumbles to her shoulders. She had been to the U.S. several times as a kid, to Orlando. “It was the Nineties, so obviously mum and dad had a timeshare.” Her father, a partner in an accounting firm, fantasized about moving to Florida for good, but however sun-deprived she sometimes felt, it never occurred to Kennedy that she might end up in the States.
She and Kai met in 2010, at a pub. He is even taller than she is and as reserved as she is chatty. He had been in London for nearly a decade, doing web design. She was acting, doing improv, writing. They dated, moved in together, got tired of the London party scene and moved to a quaint commuter town. But quaint also meant stodgy, and they didn’t fit in. In 2015, Kennedy flew for the first time to Los Angeles. The weather was gorgeous, of course, and she met with writers and producers and found a manager who wanted to work with her. She and Kai began to talk about leaving England. The next summer they were married. In September 2016, Kai filed that I-130. “Oh, well,” Kennedy thought, “it might not work out, but let’s give it a little bash. If it doesn’t, we’ll still have a lovely life here.”
Last February, Kai found a job, moved to L.A. and started looking for an apartment. In March, the day came for Kennedy’s interview at the U.S. embassy in London. She looked down and saw that her hands were shaking. She had expected something formal, she said, “an officious-looking man in a suit in the middle of a room with a clock ticking,” but the official who interviewed her was quite friendly. It was “almost like a fun and lighthearted conversation.” In less than 15 minutes, it was over. He told her that she had been accepted and could expect her Green Card to arrive within two weeks.
Kennedy left the embassy with mixed emotions. Before her interview, she said, she had struck up a conversation with a family in the waiting room, a young couple with a little boy. They were applying for visas to visit the U.S. She didn’t know where they were from, she said, but she knew they were Muslims, and she knew that the Trump administration had been trying to keep Muslims out of the U.S. The woman was fully veiled, with only her eyes showing. “She had beautiful eyes, these big, brown, loving eyes.” In the short time that they sat together, Kennedy said, “we had a really in-depth conversation about our life plans, about California.” The husband, a doctor, spoke “very eloquently about California, the smell of the pine trees, just the abundance of nature.” She watched them go in for their interview and come out a few minutes later, downcast. Things had apparently gone poorly. She didn’t talk to them again and never learned exactly what happened, but the contrast between their fortunes and hers unnerved her. Telling the story three months later, she wiped away a tear. “I feel quite guilty,” she told me. “I know how different it can be.”
The Line Is Long
Swati Narang came to the U.S. 12 years ago from India with her father and a younger sister. She was 20 then. Her dad was a programmer and had been offered a job by a tech company in Southern California. His employer applied for a visa on his behalf, an H-1B, which allows companies to sponsor individuals with “specialized knowledge” necessary for their work. It may not be the golden ticket, but the H-1B at least opens the door. It must be renewed every three years and, with a petition from the applicant’s boss, can be a step toward the security of a Green Card. With so much power in the hands of employers, accounts of abuse aren’t hard to find. Still, H-1B holders, most of whom work in the tech sector, generally do extremely well. Their average salary is more than $90,000. During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to “institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers” and to “end forever the use of the H-1B.” (He also at various times appeared to support the program, and to not understand what it is.) Already though, only 85,000 H-1Bs are awarded each year; applications wildly outnumber available slots, and the government distributes them by lottery.
Moving here, Narang said, “the first thing that hits you is loneliness.” She had grown up in what she describes as “a very small town” in Punjab, surrounded by extended family. She knew no one in L.A. Her Indian bachelor’s degree, she learned, wouldn’t be recognized here, so she enrolled at Cal State to make up the required coursework. “Since then,” she said, “I’ve never had the free time to think about it.” She earned a master’s in taxation and found a job as an accountant. When her post-graduation training period expired – foreign students are generally permitted to work for a year after completing their studies – her boss petitioned for an H-1B.
She never expected to stay here, Narang said, but with time “it felt like a much better way to live.” In the town where she grew up, “the female is supposed to look after the home and nurture and all that. I love independence.” Her eyes lit up at the word. Without planning to, she put down roots. She married, had a son, divorced and married again. Four years ago, she took a job with LegalZoom, the online legal-services company, where she works as a “product analytics manager” – something to do with marketing, she explained – again on an H-1B. She and her husband, who is also Indian and here on an H-1B, bought a house in Moorpark, in the outer bands of suburban L.A. She bought a Tesla too, and likes to drive it fast. She made sure to teach her son Hindi, but he otherwise sounds like a very American boy. He prefers basketball to soccer and shuttles after school between tae kwon do and swim lessons. Last year, at Narang’s request, LegalZoom petitioned for a Green Card for her. She expects to wait, she sighed, “forever.” (I spoke with several of her co-workers who were also Indians on H-1Bs; they had been waiting for between four and six years.)
But anxiety is in the air. Last April, Trump issued an executive order instructing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a fierce critic of H-1Bs, and the secretaries of labor, state, and homeland security to “suggest reforms” to the program. Many tech executives, some of whom are immigrants themselves, insist they cannot find enough qualified American workers to stay competitive. In the meantime, the administration appears to be doing what it can to gum up the process: The number of H-1B applications challenged by the government is up 45 percent. “You keep hearing about it,” Narang told me. “People are getting stuck.”
Narang did her best to convince me that she has no political opinions whatsoever and isn’t concerned about the future, but the first time we spoke, she was more forthright. “I’m so sick to my heart with the whole process,” she said. On her last trip to India, she said, she had been required to go to the U.S. embassy in Delhi for an interview before getting her visa stamped. “The feeling of waiting in the long queues is awful,” she said. “You can see when people are accepted and you can see when they are rejected.” She had plenty of time to observe which immigration agents seemed lenient and which seemed harsh, and to wonder if she had chosen the wrong line. Three people ahead of her were rejected. “Your remaining life is in the hands of this person who is standing on the other side of the window.” Her husband made it through and went outside to wait for her, and pray. When she couldn’t remember the date of her college graduation, she briefly feared that she wouldn’t be allowed to return. “If they deny me, what am I supposed to do, start my life over?”
The Door Swings Shut
When Patrick Dela Cruz was 11 years old, his mother told him they were going to Disneyland. He had just finished seventh grade in the Philippine countryside, about 60 miles outside of Manila. The trip, she said, would be his graduation present. He had never been in a car before, much less an airplane, so it goes without saying that Disneyland was a blast. He was excited to get home to tell his classmates about it, but the weeks soon turned to months and they were still in California. Only later did he figure out that they had never planned to return.
That was 10 years ago. He enrolled in middle school in Carson, in the working-class flats south of L.A. His adolescence was a lonely one. He didn’t speak English, which made it hard to make friends. His mother, like his aunts and many other Filipinos, found work doing in-home care for the elderly, so he only saw her on weekends. He was in 10th grade when she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and decided to fly home to the Philippines to spend what time she had left with her family. Dela Cruz made what he describes as the hardest decision of his life: to stay. The last time he spoke with his mother, on Skype, he said, “She was apologizing for not being everything I wanted. I told her, ‘You’ve given me everything. You’ve given me an opportunity.'”
If he had been born 15 years earlier, Dela Cruz might have easily joined the thousands who are sworn in as citizens each month. Until 1996, if you had been in the country for at least seven years and could prove that you would suffer “extreme hardship” if deported, you could apply for permanent residency. But Bill Clinton signed an immigration-reform bill that year that made legalization all but impossible for most, consigning Dela Cruz and millions of others to the shadows. When he graduated from high school, he learned that he was not eligible for federal financial aid or government-backed loans. He had planned to apply to college, but was told that he would have to enroll as an international student, which would push the cost of tuition far out of his reach. He couldn’t work legally either, or drive a car. For nearly two years, he was in limbo, and depressed. “I felt useless,” he said. He went to the recruitment center at a nearby mall and tried enlisting in the military, but the recruiters wouldn’t take him. He was crying as he left the mall.
Fortunately, one of his aunts learned about DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the policy instituted by the Obama administration in 2012 to offer temporary protection to immigrants who had arrived in the U.S. as children. If Clinton-era reforms had relegated a vast segment of the population to a ghostly state of official non-existence, DACA would give some relief to the so-called Dreamers, kids like de la Cruz who effectively knew no other country. It provided the most tenuous protection. The federal government was committing only to not deporting DACA recipients for renewable periods of two years at a time, and to allowing them to work and drive.
For de la Cruz, it was a godsend. Suddenly he could afford to go to school. He got a job in a clothing store, and then a tea shop, and devoted himself to his studies. He became vice president of the Asian students association, joined a student group of undocumented immigrants, another for LGBTQ kids, and an off-campus advocacy group for Filipino migrants. He allowed himself to think about the future. His bachelor’s would be in health and fitness, but he could go to graduate school and get a master’s, or even a doctorate, in physical therapy. Still, DACA could be rescinded in an instant. “There’s always that fear,” he said, “that at any time somebody can come knocking and take you away.”
Trump’s election hit hard. Everything Dela Cruz had achieved, he knew, might be taken from him. “I feel like my confidence has been stripped away,” he told me last June. Early in September, four days before Jeff Sessions made it official, Dela Cruz heard that Trump had decided to repeal DACA. He spent the weekend in his room, feeling hopeless. That Monday he sat in his kinesiology class with two windows open on his laptop: one for his lecture notes and the other to watch Sessions insist that “we are a people of compassion and we are a people of law.” Trump would allow DACA to expire in March 2018, and with it the hopes of 700,000 young, undocumented Americans. “It’s heartbreaking,” Dela Cruz said. “You give hope to someone and you just tear it up and take it away.”
Dela Cruz had already renewed his status before the attorney general’s announcement, so if Trump keeps his word, he should be safe from deportation until June of 2019. But Dela Cruz saw little reason to trust the authorities. Applying for DACA had been a risk. It meant coming out from the shadows and telling the government that you were here, and where you lived. “They have my information in the system,” Dela Cruz said. Still, whatever the risks, he intends to speak out as much as he possibly can. “I’ve been silent,” he said, “having the benefit of working and being able to go to school, but that’s being taken away. I can’t be silent anymore.”
The Bolt Is Locked
Three flags fly in the parking lot of the Adelanto ICE Processing Center: the stars and stripes, the California state flag, and a green, white and blue banner bearing the logo of the GEO Group, one of the country’s largest private prison firms. Rómulo Avélica-González lived in Southern California for 26 years without knowing that this place existed, or suspecting that he would lose six months of his life to its walls. When I was finally able to meet him a few days after his release in September, he had the dazed and grateful look that I’ve encountered on the faces of disaster survivors, as if it had been a storm or an earthquake that had upended his family’s life.
Avélica grew up in the Mexican state of Nayarit. What little work could be found there paid barely enough to eat, so in 1991, at 22, he jumped the border in Tijuana. Crossing was easier then, he told me, in Spanish. “You just had to run really fast.” (In 1994, the U.S. began increasing enforcement along urban sections of the border, pushing migrants into ever-more remote areas. Thousands have died in the desert since.) A few months later, his wife, Norma, followed him. She would give birth to four daughters, all of them U.S. citizens. Over the years, Avélica did the sort of work that undocumented immigrants end up doing in L.A.: He worked at construction sites, for a food manufacturer, a produce distributor, and for the past five years as a cook in a taco shop not far from his home in the Eastside neighborhood of Lincoln Heights. He had two run-ins with the law. Unable to legally register his car, he used tags that a friend had given him, and in 1998 was pulled over and charged with a misdemeanor for receipt of stolen property. Ten years later, he was pulled over again and tested at just over the legal limit for a DUI.
At the beginning of 2017, those incidents were far from his mind. The Obama administration deported immigrants in far greater numbers than Trump has so far, but it did so with little fanfare. Under Obama’s watch, ICE set a policy of avoiding arrests in “sensitive locations” such as churches and schools, but the Trump administration has ignored this guideline. After the election, news began spreading of arrests that seemed calculated to provoke panic: officers waiting outside churches, hauling people off in hospitals and courthouses, sending a clear message that nowhere was safe. In the first three months of Trump’s presidency, arrests by deportation officers would leap 41 percent over the same period one year earlier.
Avelica continued his usual routine – going to work, taking his kids to school, picking them up from practice – only now he did it with fear. Always, he said, “I felt uneasy.” Still, on the morning of February 28th, 2017, when he noticed lights flashing in his rear-view mirror, Avelica assumed it was the police, and that they were after someone else. He had just dropped his youngest daughter at school, and was on his way to drop off her sister, Fatima, who was then 13. The cards behind him were black and unmarked, the kind that swoop in for drug raids. When he pulled to the curb to let them pass, one swerved in front of him, boxing him in. Fatima, in the back seat, took out her phone and began shooting video. The footage is shaky, blurry through the windshield. You can see Avelica in a green knit cap pushed up against the ICE officers’ car. Mainly to hear Fatima’s sobs. On YouTube, the video now has more than 600,000 views.
Without that video, Avelica told me six months later, “we wouldn’t be sitting here.” He would have been deported that day. But Trump’s election brought about another change: organized resistance to immigration authorities with an efficiency that would have been hard to imagine a few months earlier. The ICE officers took Avelica to a basement cell in the federal detention center in downtown L.A. His older daughters rushed over to visit him. He was crying, said Brenda, the eldest at 25. “My dad doesn’t cry.” A little while later, a guard told him that in three hours he would be put in a van and riven to Tijuana. Despite his 26 years in the U.S., he was never given the phone number of an attorney or an advocacy group, or of anyone who could help him to mount some defense. In the meantime, though, the administration of his children’s school had begun to mobilize, calling immigrant-rights groups, lawyers, elected officials. Fatima’s video began to spread on social media. Protesters gathered outside the jail to block the vans from leaving. Just before they were scheduled to leave, Avelica learned he wouldn’t be going. Alan Diamante, the lawyer the school helped find for him, had filed an emergency stay with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Instead of south, to Mexico, he was driven 85 miles northeast, to Adelanto, on the edge of Mojave Desert. This counted as a victory.
The criminal alien – the “bad hombre” in the president’s words – has long been a figment of the racist imagination. Study after study has shown that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. Until the mid-1990s, the government rarely saw the need to imprison immigrants at all. But Clinton-era reforms instituted mandatory detention for all non-citizens convicted of a so-called aggravated felony, a category that included murder and rape but also many crimes that don’t usually count as felonies under criminal law, like receiving stolen property, even just a license plate. At an annual cost of more than $2 billion, ICE now incarcerates as many as 400,000 immigrants a year in more than 200 county jails and private detention centers. The two largest private-prison corporations, the GEO Group and CoreCivic, have reaped enormous profits, and donate generously to politicians of both parties. In August 2016, Obama’s Justice Department ordered a gradual phase-out of federal contracts with private prisons. GEO and CoreCivic stocks plummeted. The two corporations would together donate half a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee, and hundreds of thousands more to Republican PACs. One month after Trump took office, Sessions rescinded the Obama order on private prisons. GEO and CoreCivic’s investments seem to have paid off.
“I didn’t know how long I would be there, but I knew I wouldn’t last long,” Avélica recalled of his arrival at Adelanto. The food was meager. Avélica suffers from diabetes. In the first two months, he lost 18 pounds. His head always hurt. He felt weak all the time. The prison doctor put him on medication, but it didn’t help. Almost two years earlier, 29 members of Congress had signed a letter to ICE and the inspector general at the Justice Department voicing their concern that GEO was “failing to provide adequate medical treatment” at the Adelanto facility. Between December 2016 and the end of last July, three prisoners there died. Five others attempted suicide. “It’s very easy to get depressed there,” Avélica said. “People give up.”
Avélica’s daughters drove out on the weekends. For the family, Brenda told me, his arrest “was like a tornado hit us.” Emotionally and financially, he had been the one holding the family together. At the end of each visit, she said, they would joke to their father and say, “OK, let’s go.” Then the guards would lead him off, and close the door, and they would get in the car and drive home in silence. Diamante pushed on. Except for the attention it has received, he told me, there was nothing unusual about Avélica’s situation. “I see cases like this every day.”
In June, a judge vacated the criminal convictions that had been the basis of Avélica’s deportation order. On August 6th, an immigration court threw out the deportation order too. Avélica stayed on at Adelanto. Finally, on August 30th, an immigration judge agreed to release him on a $6,000 bond. Nine camera crews were waiting outside the prison parking lot. In the weeks that followed, Avélica transformed into an activist, talking to community groups and lobbying politicians. “The only way to fight injustice,” he told me, “is for the people to raise their voice.” The last time I saw him, he was just back from speaking at a rally in Sacramento, and on his way to a meeting with the Mexican Consul. But on the day of his release, it was time for celebration. People had banded together, and this time, they had won. There was a party for Avélica at the taco shop where he had worked, which his friends and family had decorated with banners and balloons. His first stop in L.A., though, was at the Mission San Conrado, just north of downtown, to give thanks for his freedom to God, to Saint Jude – the patron saint of the impossible, the desperate and the hopeless – and to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who looks over the Americas, regardless of borders.
Outside the Law
Guadalupe Barrientos is not her real name. Her story is long and tangled and she tells it with urgency, jumping easily from laughter to tears to laughter again. She laughs so often and with so much warmth that you might not guess how much trauma and loss she has squeezed into the 51 years she has spent on this planet. Barrientos was raised in El Salvador, and was a teenager when civil war broke out. She crossed the border to Guatemala and at 18 married the man who would become the father of her four children. He drove a minibus, drank too much and beat her brutally and often. He once fractured her skull with the butt of a pistol, she said. She needed 24 stitches in her scalp. In 2004, fearing for her life, she fled. A friend paid a coyote to bring her to California. The journey took two weeks, by truck, by car, by foot. Her plan was simple: to work and bring her children over so that they could live together as a family, without fear.
Barrientos found a job as a housekeeper for a family in Hancock Park, the oldest of L.A.’s wealthy neighborhoods. She was what we would call a “live-in,” though the Spanish word she used translates more accurately as “locked in.” She would arrive on Monday morning and work into the night until Saturday: cleaning, cooking, babysitting and helping another worker, a Filipina, look after the family’s elderly mother. She slept on a mattress on the floor of the children’s room. For this she was paid, she said, $300 a week. On her days off she worked as a dishwasher and as a helper at a taqueria. She stayed for three years. Later she found work selling food – hot dogs, quesadillas, pupusas – from a cart, at first at a car wash and more recently on a street corner in South Central. She handed over her profits to the man who owned the cart, who gave her $40 for each eight-hour day. In recent months, she said, police have been cracking down on unlicensed vendors. Fearing arrest, she quit.
Bringing her children over has also proven difficult. Her oldest son, now 32, made it as far as Boston, but was later deported. Her next youngest made the perilous journey through Mexico by freight train and crossed the border with a group of 30 other migrants. The smugglers they had paid to guide them imprisoned them for two weeks in a house in Phoenix in an attempt to extort ransoms from their families. Her son broke the windows and helped the others to escape, Barrientos said, but ICE soon picked them up. She showed me a photo of him wearing a blue prison uniform and a look of anxious expectation. He was at a private immigration prison in Eloy, Arizona, at the time, just before his deportation. Back in Guatemala, she said, he had been kidnapped twice by gang members. His father had refused to pay them protection money – bus drivers are a common target – so they abducted and tortured him to sway the old man. When her son heard they were coming for him a third time, and were planning to kill him, he swallowed a powerful pesticide. He called her first, and begged forgiveness. “I don’t want to do it,” he told her, “but I don’t want them to kill me.” She wept at the memory. He was 21 when he died. He left behind a little boy, a grandson who Barrientos supports but has never been able to meet.
A third son made it. After being shot by gangsters and spending three days in a coma, he fled north at 17 as part of the wave of Central American children who arrived in the U.S. in 2014, escaping the violence that has ravaged the region. He was ultimately granted asylum, and now lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend, who recently gave birth to a son. The Trump administration has since canceled the Obama-era program for granting refugee status to fleeing Central American minors, and last June, ICE began cracking down on undocumented parents suspected of paying smugglers to bring their children here.
Barrientos has a daughter too, a 14-year-old who was an infant when Barrientos had to leave her behind. She worries over her constantly: Her daughter’s age and gender make her particularly vulnerable to the violence that has overtaken Guatemala, and to the many dangers of the journey north. For now, Barrientos sends her all the money she can, and makes do with photos and phone calls. “She’s like me in miniature,” she told me with pride, down to the birthmark on her cheek.
If she had known to apply and had been able to afford a lawyer, Barrientos would likely have been granted asylum when she arrived here 14 years ago. It is now almost certainly too late. Until last year, she was able to hold out some small degree of hope that with enough struggle, enough marches and organizing and pressure from below, Congress might pass an immigration-reform package that would eventually give her some relief, that would allow her to work with dignity at a decent wage, to visit her children, to sleep through the night without fearing that ICE officers might tear her from her home. Trump’s election has slammed every door shut. Barrientos can see no exit to the fear and heartache to which our laws have condemned her. She does not believe that is a reason to give up.
In 2010, three days after her son’s death and one day after his funeral, which she was not able to attend, Barrientos marched in a May Day rally for immigrant rights in downtown Los Angeles. She wept through the entire demonstration, she said, but it was important to her to be there, to be counted, to be heard. “This country has to realize that without us, it’s nothing,” she told me. “We’re the ones who make the country move. We’re the ones who give everything.”
The Door Swings Shut Again
Three weeks after Diego Ortiz became a U.S. citizen, the Trump administration rescinded the Temporary Protected Status that previous administrations had extended to more than 5,000 Nicaraguans. Two weeks after that, the Department of Homeland Security announced that 59,000 Haitians with TPS had 18 months to leave the country. Ortiz was dismayed by the news. “I wish people understood,” he said, “that it’s out of necessity that people come here. It’s not because they want to.”
But the door that had opened for Ortiz and his family, that had allowed his parents to escape with their lives and raise their children without fear, was about to swing closed behind them: In January, Trump ended TPS for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans. And the administration continues its encroachment on immigrant protections: Earlier this month, in an escalation of the Justice Department’s attack on sanctuary laws, Jeff Sessions filed a lawsuit against the state of California, to force state and local officials to cooperate with ICE. Sweeps like the one that tore Rómulo Avélica from his family have become the new norm, especially in California: ICE arrested 212 people in five days of raids in and around Los Angeles in mid-February, 150 more in the Bay Area over one weekend in February, and another 115 over three days last week in San Diego. Wall or no wall, America is getting smaller, and the machine is getting uglier.
But that is not the only change. In the long run, and perhaps well before that, Trump’s reign of fear may produce some unplanned results. Many of the new citizens I interviewed at naturalization ceremonies talked about the sense of helplessness they experienced in November 2016, of not having a vote, or a voice in the only country they considered home. Next time, and the time after that, they promised, they would not let the opportunity slide by. In the meantime, Trump’s actions have already taught Patrick de la Cruz and the children of Rómulo Avélica, and their classmates, and many thousands of other immigrant youth, with papers and without, that the only way to live in this country with dignity is to stand up, to organize, and to fight.