By Masuma Ahuja
New York (CNN) Ninety-seven people are at Catholic Charities this morning. It feels like a hospital waiting room.
The sense of anticipation is palpable: Every time a charity worker comes to the front of the room with a clipboard, everyone looks up, waiting for their names to be called. For their questions to be answered.
What happens if ICE is knocking at your door?
What kind of ID should I have?
What about my children if I get deported?
Are there forms we can fill out to sign off guardianship of our children?
In past weeks, as news of ICE raids and deportations has spread, lawyers and charities have been telling immigrants, both documented and undocumented, how to prepare.
How to make space for fear in their lives so they are not consumed by it.
In Lower Manhattan, people begin queuing at the crack of dawn every Thursday in a Financial District high-rise to get help with their fears.
Thirteen floors up, Catholic Charities hosts what it calls “immigration intake sessions” where people can get advice on how to apply for asylum or a green card, what to do if ICE officers knock on their doors or what rights they have as undocumented immigrants.
Don’t be afraid, these lawyers advise, but be ready.
“It’s important not to be so scared that you’re afraid to leave your house, send your kids to school, or go to the hospital if you need to,” says Raluca Oncioiu, director of immigration legal services at Catholic Charities. But if someone knocks on your door, the first question is: Do you have a search warrant?
The rumors aren’t true, the lawyers reassure: There are no ICE agents waiting on subway platforms. But also, always wear a seat belt, don’t speed, don’t drive with a broken taillight.
And don’t be afraid to go to the police if you’re a victim of a crime. It won’t just protect you from the crime, but it’ll help safeguard anyone else who could be a victim of the same crime, the lawyers explain.
Maribelle is an undocumented immigrant, a DREAMer, from Mexico. She came to Catholic Charities because her youngest child, who’s 9, receives speech therapy in school, and Maribelle wants to find out about getting him more services despite her immigration status. Like the other people we spoke to here, she was comfortable giving only her first name.
Maribelle is also worried about getting deported. She came to the United States in 1989 when she was 5. She hasn’t been to Mexico since, and she doesn’t even speak Spanish.
“My two youngest kids — well, the middle one, she’s 12, she’s really scared. Really scared,” Maribelle says.
“I told my daughter to have faith, that we’re together and whatever happens, we’ll be together.”
Maribelle says she prays. There are millions of people like her here, so she hopes she won’t be deported. She also hopes that in three years, when her oldest son turns 21, he will be able to help her obtain legal status.
Olga is from Venezuela. She’s in the United States legally, but her visa expires soon and she’s here to find out how to apply for asylum — to escape the political and economic instability in her country.
Her daughter, Maria, is a college student in New York and speaks English, so she accompanied her mother to Catholic Charities.
“They said we need proof,” Maria says, explaining the asylum process. But, she adds, it’s impossible to prove the risks her mother faces in her home country.
“A person who tells you to your face, ‘I’m going to hurt you,’ we cannot have proof of that. We have no proof that she’s scared.”
Maria would also prefer to remain in the United States after college. She says she’s going to look for jobs here after she graduates but worries it might be hard to stay.
“It’s difficult to think that we’re going to have to go back to our country,” Maria says. “We don’t want to go back.”
If things don’t work out here, maybe they’ll go to Canada. Her brother lives there, and Maria says she hears it’s easier there.
Albertina is here to make a plan, to be prepared for the worst. She is undocumented and wants to fight if she is detained or deported. She is so afraid that she doesn’t want her face to be photographed.
She came to the United States from Guatemala seven years ago, leaving her four children behind. Like others, she wanted to escape poverty and violence, to fight for a better life for her children.
Now, two of them — 14 and 17 — have joined her. They are also undocumented. The other two — 12 and 19 — remain in Guatemala. Albertina’s wages from babysitting help her pay rent for homes here and for her children in Guatemala.
If anything happens to her, she doesn’t want her children here to have to return to Guatemala.
Has she thought about who will be their guardians in case she is deported?
No, she responds quickly. There is nobody.
Her children’s father came to the United States and disappeared, she says, and her children in Guatemala live alone.
Clusters of families wait in groups, whispering to each other, babies crying in strollers, preteens playing on parents’ phones, a grandmother clutching her rosary as she waits for her name to be called.
Margarite is here with her 10-year-old daughter. Margarite is undocumented and has lived in the United States for 13 years.
Her 78-year-old mother is sick, and Margarite wants to return to Mexico to care for her. But she’s worried that if she leaves the country, she won’t be able to come back.
She’s here to figure out if she can get a visa and what’s possible for her and her family. She says she’s been the victim of violence and hopes that will help her get a visa.
She’s talked to her four children about what happens if she’s deported. Although they were all born here and are US citizens, they’ve decided they want to stay together. So if she gets deported, they would go with her.
Her children tell her they’re scared, they don’t want her to get deported.
“I’m trying,” she tells them.
The lawyers at Catholic Charities say they have forms for people to fill out, but they advise the immigrants who have come here today to go home and think about what these forms mean before signing and filing anything.
Do they want to give temporary or permanent guardianship of their children to someone else? Do they need to give others access to their finances?
The paperwork is the easy part, but these are difficult decisions.