There is palpable fear amongst the undocumented community after the Department of Homeland Security issued new memos that gives U.S. officials sweeping latitude to target “removable aliens” for deportation, effectively making most of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. priority targets.
Under Barack Obama, immigration officials were told to focus on convicted criminals instead of the broader undocumented population. The memos issued out this week by Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly instruct agents to also prioritize undocumented immigrants who have been charged with a crime but not convicted of it, or committed an act that may be criminal offenses but haven’t been charged for it. Those categories mean that almost any brush with the American law-enforcement system could make an undocumented immigrant a target for removal.
“I’m very, very afraid,” says a St.Petersburg housekeeper who only wanted to be identified by her first name of Melissa.
A Brazilian native who has duel citizenship with Portugal, Melissa came to the U.S. last year with her Portuguese passport but has stayed past the three months she was legally able to. She keeps her two-year-old daughter in day care, and says she is terrified that if she gets picked up by local police she may never see her again.
“I’ll never call for some help, if I need the police here,” she says. “I’ll never call anyone to help me.”
There are approximately 610,000 undocumented people in Florida, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Daniel Barajas is the executive director with the Young American Dreamers, based in Auburndale. His organization has been hosting community forums this week, teaching the undocumented what to do if they’re confronted by immigration officers.
“We’re just trying to reassure the community by giving them the confidence in the means of learning their rights and keeping them organize, so when there’s actions where mobilizing the community would be strategic, we could do so,” he says.
Left untouched in the DHS directives is anything to do with DACA, an executive order imposed by President Obama that provides 750,000 young undocumented immigrations a means to work and live in the U.S.
“We’re gonna show great heart,” Trump said in a news conference last week. “DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you.”
“It’s not a security blanket, even though I do feel like I have a path to citizenship,” says Tampa resident Andrea Seabra, who is part of the DACA program. “It is what it is today, and I just hope every day that things get better.”
While big city mayors like Tampa’s Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg’s Rick Kriseman say that they will make sure that their police departments don’t go out of their way to detain undocumented immigrants, Edwin Enciso with Justicia Now says that isn’t the case in many other parts of Florida.
“The problem is that about 40 percent of the udocumented community live in rural counties and have sheriffs who have a history of cooperating with federal agents in this way, and so in those areas the undocumented community, especially farm workers, are more vulnerable,” he says.
Those sheriffs would include Polk County’s Grady Judd, who said at a news conference earlier this week that “our primary goal has got to be to get the illegal aliens committing felonies out of this country and keep them out.”
After the new directives were announced by DHS this week, Orlando area Democratic U.S. Representative Darren Soto held an emergency roundtable discussion, where he learned that students in Auburndale had been questioned by local school administrators about their immigration status. “Given the recent executive action and heated rhetoric on immigration, these unauthorized inquiries are deeply troubling to me and our constituents,” Soto said in a letter sent to Judd, Orange County Sheriff Jerry L. Demings, Osceola County Sheriff Russ Gibson and more than 20 school board members.
“What we find disturbing is that he hasn’t even found time to sit down with the Hispanic community to discuss what their concerns are,” said Barajas of Judd, who he has worked with in the past. Barajas said DHS’ orders affects more than just the undocumented, since there are many Hispanic families with “mixed status,” that is, with some family members who are documented, others who aren’t or who have those who are on DACA.
Most Americans believe that cities that arrest illegal immigrants for crimes should be required to turn them over to federal authorities.
A survey from Harvard–Harris Poll published by the The Hill this week found that 80 percent of voters say local authorities should have to comply with the law by reporting to federal agents the illegal immigrants they come into contact with.
Seabra says she wonders whether President Trump has ever had the chance to sit down with DACA students or farm workers, and says such a meeting could have an impact on his viewpoint.
“I feel he was actually exposed to people that work for him, the people who clean his bathrooms, the people that built his building, maybe he’ll understand that we’re not here to destroy his country, but to make it better.”