More Illegal Immigrants Putting Affairs In Order

More Illegal Immigrants Putting Affairs in Order
Deportation Risk Prompts Preparation

By N.C. Aizenman
The Washington Post, July 15, 2008

A 30-year-old single mother from Manassas recently visited a notary public to formally arrange custody for her toddler son after she's gone.

It's deportation, not death, that has her worried.

With federal authorities stepping up raids and local police joining enforcement efforts, illegal immigrants and their advocates say that preparing for possible deportation is becoming a common feature of life in their underground world.

They are designating who should take custody of their children, indicating what should be done with cars and homes, ensuring that relatives have power of attorney to access bank accounts and key documents, and memorizing phone numbers they might need to call from jail. Some are sending their U.S.-born children for visits to their home countries so they could adapt more easily if the family is suddenly forced to move back.

For Catalina, being prepared meant a trip to the notary so her best friend would have appropriate paperwork to take custody of her year-old son and deliver him to Mexico if she were deported.

'I'm still nervous [about getting caught],' said Catalina, who, like other illegal immigrants interviewed, spoke on condition that her last name not be published. 'But I feel a lot calmer knowing that whatever happens, I'll never lose my son to foster care.'

In most cases, the planning is done informally through conversations like the one Cathy Lorena, a 21-year-old from El Salvador, had recently with her brother in the dining room of the colonial house they share in Herndon.

Although Cathy Lorena and her husband have been living illegally in the United States for three years, she said she started feeling insecure only a few months ago, after her husband was fired as an office cleaner when the company started checking workers' identity documents.

'You start to worry that someone at the company will call immigration on you,' said Lorena, who works for a similar office cleaning firm and has a year-old son. 'Every day you leave your baby to go to work, and you wonder if you're going to return.'

Although Lorena had always assumed that her brother, who is a legal permanent resident, would take care of the child if she and her husband were detained, she suddenly felt it necessary to sit down with her brother and spell that out.

'I wanted to make sure he knows things like who my son's doctor is, where the babysitter lives, and that he's the person we would want to be in charge,' she said.

Although Lorena did not sign any legal forms, illegal immigrants in the area are increasingly making their precautions official. Jay Marks, a Silver Spring-based immigration lawyer who has become well known in the Washington Latino community through his appearances on Spanish-language radio, said he gets two or three calls a week from illegal immigrants seeking advice on how to give their arrangements legal force.

'They'll say, for example, 'My house, I'd want to transfer it to someone else,' or, 'My car, I'd want to ship it home, but how can I make sure someone could do that for me if I were locked up?' '

Similarly, workers at Union Hispana Multiservices, the notary public office in Prince William County where Catalina filled out the power-of-attorney forms for her son, said they never saw such requests until late last year, when county supervisors passed a resolution requiring police to check the immigration status of people stopped for other offenses.

Months later, the company is still seeing about three clients a week who want to sign power-of-attorney forms designating custody of their children in the event of deportation, said Claudia Rivera, the notary who helped Catalina.

Meanwhile, at the Salvadoran consulate in Northern Virginia, the number of immigrants registering their U.S.-born children for Salvadoran citizenship jumped from 57 between January and May last year to 219 during the same period this year. Consul Mirian Vargas said she thinks the increase is due to immigrants' growing anxiety rather than a spike in births, because 'they tell us so. They say that they are worried they will be arrested and deported, and they want to make sure their children will be able to get a passport and join them back in El Salvador quickly.'

Saul, a Honduran living in Annandale, has already sent his 4-year-old son ahead for a trial run. A few days ago, the 28-year-old auto mechanic and his wife, who is also in the country illegally, put the U.S.-born boy on a plane to Honduras so he can spend the next two months with his grandparents.

'It was very hard to do it. . . . He's honestly too young to be traveling, and I miss him already,' Saul said a day later. 'But we're doing this out of necessity. . . . From one day to the next, anything can happen, and I want him to know our culture, so that if we suddenly get sent back there, he'll be able to get used to it quickly.'

The chance that an illegal immigrant will be detained and deported after making it past the U.S. border remains quite low. The vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who are detained each year are caught trying to sneak in. And although workplace arrests have risen tenfold since 2002, from 510 to nearly 5,000, that still accounts for a fraction of the nation's estimated 8 million illegal immigrant workers.

Nonetheless, each new raid, including one that scooped up 45 employees of an Annapolis painting company two weeks ago, sends another ripple of anxiety through the community and adds to immigrants' sense that they must prepare themselves for the worst.

Immigrant advocates also are hammering home the message in training sessions. The Manassas-based Immigration and Human Rights Law Group has mounted one of the most extensive outreach efforts, conducting about 30 three-hour seminars during which it has provided about 3,000 immigrants with sample power-of-attorney forms and detailed advice on more sophisticated strategies, such as retaining an attorney in advance or checking on the exact nature of their immigration violation in case they can attempt to resolve it before it becomes a problem.

'The deportation of a relative, particularly if they're the main bread-winner, is almost like a death in the family,' said the group's Lisa Johnson-Firth. 'And just as for a death, families need to be prepared to handle it.'