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In Trump era, LI immigrants cope with tougher ICE actions, 'climate of fear'

Migdalia (not her real name), 33, is a

Migdalia (not her real name), 33, is a Mexican immigrant in the country illegally. After living in the U.S. for more than 10 years, she said recent encounters with abusive strangers have made her fearful. Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Fearing deportation, a Guatemalan cleaning woman in the country illegally has taught her children to go quiet when they hear a knock on the door at their Hempstead apartment. Under a policy enacted by President Donald Trump, federal agents looking for immigrants wanted for serious crimes could arrest and deport her, too.

A Salvadoran-born immigrant in the country for 25 years recently sold the Central Islip home he bought with savings from his work as a commercial driver. In early 2018, the Trump Administration announced the end of a program that protects him and hundreds of thousands of others from deportation.

A 15-year-old Suffolk County girl, born on Long Island to parents here illegally, struggled for years over whether to report that her godfather had repeatedly sexually abused her. During the last presidential election, her anxiety grew as she faced taunts from a schoolmate wearing a MAGA hat. She held back on reporting her abuser to police, dreading that doing so could lead to her mother “being taken away.”

The Guatemalan cleaner, Salvadoran driver and Suffolk teenager are among the Long Island residents whose lives have been thrown into tumult by Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policies and “America First” pronouncements. 

The policies have made Long Island immigrants in the country illegally — the majority of whom have no history of committing crimes in their new communities — more vulnerable to deportation. But the effects don't stop there. The administration's approach has also disrupted the lives of legal immigrants and U.S. citizens whose families include members without legal status.

Far from being a byproduct, the unease is an effect intended by architects of the Trump administration’s more restrictive approach. 

"Everything is worse for us immigrants."

Ana, a Guatemalan cleaning woman in the country illegally and living in Hempstead

“Anyone here illegally is potentially subject to removal,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit advocacy group that backs stricter immigration controls. “It would be unrealistic not to be worried.”

Federal agents, often with the help of local law enforcement, have apprehended hundreds more immigrants on Long Island since Trump took office compared with the years immediately prior. 

“Everything is worse for us immigrants,” said Ana, the cleaning woman.

Immigration, both legal and illegal, has always been a divisive issue, particularly among Republicans. In recent decades, the GOP has generally favored a harder line on enforcement, but not without exception. Ronald Reagan signed legislation in 1986 that made millions of migrants who had crossed into the country illegally eligible for amnesty, and George W. Bush pushed for a path to citizenship that would have affected millions.

Under Trump, such far-reaching legislation is unthinkable.

He has warned of an immigrant “invasion,” highlighted violent crimes by those here illegally and blamed immigrants for taking American jobs. In statements and tweets, Trump has said that he would like to see all those who have crossed the border illegally deported without due process and labeled many “murderers” and “criminals” who “infest our country.”

In a failed attempt to win congressional funding for his long-sought wall at the Mexican border, he brought the federal government to a partial halt in late 2018.

“No other president has shut down the federal government in the interest of hostility to immigrants,” said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, whose specialties include urban America and ethnicity. “It’s completely unprecedented.”

According to data from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency made 158,581 arrests in fiscal year 2018, a 44 percent jump over the 2016 fiscal year. Most of the increase, the enforcement and removal data shows, has been driven by arrests of those without criminal records. 

In the region covered by ICE’s New York City field office, which oversees surrounding counties including Nassau and Suffolk, arrests of immigrants without criminal histories rose 400 percent during the period to 1,259 in fiscal year 2018. Total arrests in the region climbed 88 percent from 1,847 to 3,476.


Immigration arrests

Details on ICE arrests obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. According to ICE, these data do not include arrests made by Customs and Border Protection when the individual is transferred to ICE for detention and eventual removal.


The burgeoning arrest numbers are still far below those reached during Barack Obama’s presidency. While seeking comprehensive immigration reform, Obama was aggressive in deporting those here illegally. When his efforts collapsed in the GOP-controlled House, he reversed course and prioritized arrest and deportation of only serious criminals, providing a measure of protection to those who have led lawful lives since their border crossings.

When enforcement intensified under Trump, Denis Guerra Guerra, a Hempstead baker and church youth leader who had entered the country illegally, was among the first wave of Long Islanders without an arrest record to feel the effect. 

Federal authorities deported Guerra Guerra to El Salvador in August 2017 after local police stopped him for failing to signal while making a turn. His ordeal provided for many a frightening example of what could now befall them.

‘Climate of fear’

Similar shocks have disrupted immigrant life here before, according to longtime community observers.

The Rev. Mártir Benavides, who ministers to hundreds of Central American immigrants as pastor of Tabernáculo de Restauración a las Naciones evangelical church in Islip, said that at least Trump doesn’t offer false hope.

Immigrants, he said, must try to seek legal status and carry on. 

“We can’t just go hide,” Benavides said. “If you are working here to make an honest living ... you just keep going forward.”

Trump’s aggressive posture, however, has had a range of disruptive effects, according to interviews with immigrants — in the country both legally and illegally — community service providers and law enforcement leaders. Together they describe a community on alert when Trump’s rhetoric escalates, a policy change is announced or rumors of ICE activity catch fire.

Wendy Rodríguez, a Brentwood business leader and owner of the Ultimate Sweat Zona, a gym for women and children that counts many immigrants as members, said business drops when a wave of fear strikes. Her clients become wary of getting caught on the road — those without legal status cannot get driver’s licenses in New York State — or being “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“When things calm down,” she said, “everybody comes back.”

As seen elsewhere, many legal immigrants are afraid to register for benefits they are entitled to such as food stamps and health insurance because they live in households that include those without legal status, said Rebecca Sanin, chief executive officer of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, a nonprofit that aids the disadvantaged.

“The fear is that if you access any public benefits, there will be scrutiny, and the fear is that families could be separated,” Sanin said.

When clients stop taking benefits, Sanin said providers interview them to find out why — that’s how she knows a stronger economy is not behind the decline.

“It’s directly related to the climate of fear,” she said.

About 55 — or 10 percent — of the students at Suffolk County Community College who are in the country without authorization forgo in-county financial aid, according to Associate Dean Patty Munsch. Under state law they must sign a notarized affidavit promising to seek legal status if possible, in effect outing themselves.

“They’re so scared of that affidavit,” Munsch said.

Teresa, 45, a single mother living in Suffolk who asked not to be identified by her real name because she’s at risk of deportation, said she gets uneasy at the sight of a patrol car. She goes out only on necessary errands and to work at a deli. Some days, when she’s heard rumors of ICE operations, she’s stayed home.

“That’s when I say, 'OK, let’s turn off the lights and lock ourselves up as if no one lived here,’” she said in Spanish.

An explicit aim of the increased enforcement is to create enough anxiety that those here without authorization choose to leave the country. ICE’s then acting director Thomas Homan told U.S. House members in 2017 that if you are in the country illegally, “you need to look over your shoulder. You need to be worried.”

Homan and others who have carried out Trump’s policies support what’s called attrition through enforcement, a strategy long championed in some conservative circles. Given the impossibility of removing millions of people, they theorize that many will leave on their own if life for them is made more difficult.

“That’s how the attrition through enforcement strategy works,” said Vaughan, of the Center for Immigration Studies. “Do I want to stick around and wait for that to happen to me? Or should I maybe start thinking about planning to return? Because I have a family, and if I get arrested and detained and lose my job that's going to be hard for my family, and I don't want that to happen.”

Newsday spoke to more than a dozen immigrants at risk of deportation. None was considering leaving the United States, but many said they were shaken and even angered.

Teresa, the single mother in Suffolk who works in a deli, refers to Trump as “ese Señor,” or “that Mister.”

“With all the things that Mister says,” said Teresa, who is Mexican, “we are always thinking we don’t know what’s going to happen to us.”

The wariness that can stem from such uncertainty is a challenge for police whose crime-fighting efforts suffer when immigrants view them with suspicion.

“That’s really troubling for us in law enforcement. People don’t feel that they can even call us.”

Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas

“I cannot have that breakdown,” Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said in an interview. “If I don’t have a community, I’m done.”

Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart echoed that sentiment, saying that the department aims to “foster an open dialogue with our immigrant communities.”

Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said she established a Spanish/English hotline in 2015 in hope that the community would use it to seek help from law enforcement. She said that calls to the hotline “diminished drastically” once Trump became president.

In the 10 months the hotline was up in 2015, it received 82 calls, according to Singas’ office. That number dropped to 51 calls in 2016, and eight in 2017 and 2018. Now, she said, people are more likely to reach out through a community faith leader or advocate. 

“That’s really troubling for us in law enforcement,” Singas said. “People don’t feel that they can even call us.”

‘Just trying to survive’

Ana, who crossed the border illegally 12 years ago after leaving Guatemala, said the president’s words have turned people against immigrants like her.

“We’re in a situation that as soon as people look at you they are watching you,” she said, “because if you look Hispanic they think you shouldn’t be here.”

Ana is 39 and cleans a residential building in Hempstead. She walks everywhere — to her job, to pick her kids up at school and to attend English classes and get other services at the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead.

She has five children, three of whom were born in the United States, and her partner is a Salvadoran also without legal status. She asked that her real name not be used so as not to attract the attention of immigration enforcement agents.

When there is a knock at the family’s apartment, the forced silence she’s drilled into her children is hardest for her youngest boy, who has trouble containing his excitement if he thinks his father is arriving home.

Ana said she’d done nothing to draw attention from authorities but worries ICE may come looking for somebody else, perhaps a former tenant, and stumble on her family.

Her fear has a basis, given the so-called collateral arrests that ICE now makes. As in the past, immigration agents prioritize the arrest and deportation of those who have committed serious crimes. However, when they raid a location in search of a target, they are now free to arrest other immigrants here illegally whom they come across.

The thought of being detained and separated from her children torments her, and with the help of advocates Ana has prepared herself for any brush with authorities. She knows to ask whether she is under arrest or free to leave and that she should not answer questions without a lawyer present. She has made a pact with a younger sister, also in the country illegally, to take care of one another’s children if either mother is taken.

“We’re just trying to survive,” Ana said. “I didn’t come to this country to harm anyone. I came to work and give my children opportunity.”

Others face a different risk. Carlos Reyes has legal protection for now. He is the Central Islip homeowner who in February sold his house, which he likened to “giving up on my dreams.”

Reyes left El Salvador in 1994, crossed the border illegally in Arizona and made his way to Suffolk County. He was 16.

He enrolled in English classes and attended community college while working at a window factory. In 2001, he was among more than 260,000 Salvadorans who got a chance to stay and work legally in the United States when then-President George W. Bush granted them temporary protected status, or TPS, exempting them from deportation after earthquakes struck their homeland.

Reyes obtained a commercial driver’s license and found work driving heavy trucks. Eventually, he became a bus driver and now shuttles disabled people around Suffolk. In 2005, Reyes was able to buy his house.

The Trump administration announced that on Sept. 9 time would run out for Salvadorans protected by the program, which was extended several times by Bush and Obama. The date was recently moved back by court order to this coming Jan. 2.

If it holds, Reyes, 42, would be faced with staying illegally or returning to an impoverished country racked by violence. He said the prospect leaves him with the “fear of having to stay in limbo, in the shadows … of no longer being yourself.”

He is ready for his nightmare to unfold but hopes he’s allowed to stay. Reyes just got a real estate license and has long considered opening a trucking business.

“We don’t know what’s coming,” said Reyes, who now rents, “so I am trying to put everything in order so that if that moment comes, there wouldn’t be anything tying me down.”

‘Very lovely people’

Five days after being sworn in, Trump signed an executive order granting ICE expanded powers that markedly increased the number of people the agency arrests for civil immigration violations who have no criminal history.

It was among the first initiatives the Trump administration launched to step up immigration enforcement. More recently, the president threatened tariffs to pressure Mexico to stop the movement of Central American migrants to the United States. Late Friday, the two countries announced an agreement, details of which are not fully clear, that will avoid tariffs.

Though the federal government can bring criminal charges for illegal entry into the country — a misdemeanor on first offense — that typically only happens at the border. When ICE makes arrests for violations of civil immigration law in the interior, it’s often for failing to appear at court hearings after being detained and released. Such arrests may stem from illegal crossings that occurred decades ago.

The stricter controls, Trump and others in his administration argue, are needed in part to bolster the economy and public safety. Multiple studies have found no causal link between immigration and increased crime. A widely cited 600-page analysis by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in 2017 found net benefits from immigration to the American economy over time. However, the analysis found that short-term fiscal impacts can be significant for local communities absorbing newcomers.

While Trump's views appeal to many, polls have repeatedly shown that most Americans view immigrants favorably and oppose mass deportation of those without legal status.

A January 2019 Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Americans oppose or strongly oppose deporting all immigrants who are living in the United States illegally, while 37 percent favor or strongly favor returning them to their home countries.

"She told me that I needed to speak English, that we don’t speak Spanish here."

Migdalia, not her real name, describing an encounter last year with a stranger on Long Island 

Migdalia, not her real name, has met Americans from both camps since she crossed the border illegally from Mexico in 2008. Since arriving, Migdalia said that despite instances of employers taking advantage of her status and shortchanging her pay — she cleans houses in the Hamptons — she wasn’t fearful and found most Americans “very lovely people.”

Since Trump’s election, however, she’s felt more hostility. In one 2018 incident, Migdalia said she was shopping with her 9-year-old son, who was born on Long Island, and discussing his school day when a woman in a red MAGA hat approached.

“She told me that I needed to speak English, that we don’t speak Spanish here,” Migdalia said.

A woman shopping nearby told her to ignore the woman, but Migdalia felt humiliated by the episode.

“Now we’re mostly keeping to ourselves and I go out based on need, to medical appointments, to my son’s school,” she said.

Her son has his own response.

He wants to be president someday.

‘A seamless flow of information’

Local law enforcement has been critical to boosting ICE arrests.

County jails have held inmates that ICE sought to detain. Police notify ICE whenever someone born outside the country is arrested, allowing the agency to check for past immigration violations. Local detectives serve alongside ICE agents on anti-gang task forces. Resource officers patrol schools, where controversy has surrounded the reliability of information they've produced that was later used by ICE to arrest students on allegations of gang ties.

These areas of cooperation are the basis for what Angel Melendez, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations at the ICE New York Field Office, called “a seamless flow of information” between his agency and local authorities.

“Collaboration is the foundation of everything that we are doing,” Melendez said.

A month after Trump was elected, then-Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco resumed the controversial practice of detaining inmates arrested on local criminal charges and due to be released from custody whom ICE had flagged for immigration violations. The jail, which has a trailer on site staffed with ICE agents, would hold detainees for up to 48 hours to give agents a chance to pick them up and transfer them to federal custody.

DeMarco was reversing his own policy from more than two years earlier, when he had decided that the jail would stop honoring such detainer requests from ICE, which are administrative in nature, but would hold an inmate for deportation when the agency had a warrant signed by a federal judge. Judicial approval offers due process protection that is absent in the case of administrative warrants.

At the time of the reversal, DeMarco told Newsday it was based on an analysis of legal, not political, considerations. “I do believe this is good public policy,” said DeMarco, who Trump nominated to be a U.S. marshal last month.

The increased cooperation, which brought Suffolk in line with Nassau’s policy, raised the stakes in any interaction that a Long Island immigrant without legal status had with police. Arrest could trigger events that led to deportation, regardless of the severity of the charges or the possibility of exoneration.

The Suffolk jail handed over 416 detainees to ICE in 2017, three times the number in each of the two prior years. As of mid-August 2018, the jail had turned over 274 detainees. Nassau jail officials said they could not provide figures for prior years, but in 2017, 403 detainees were turned over to ICE and 269 through August 2018. Both county jails were on track to exceed their 2017 number in 2018. Then in early November, a state appellate court ruled that it was “unlawful” for local authorities to “effectuate civil immigration arrests” for ICE. Enforcing federal immigration law, the court found, is simply not among the state’s powers.

Both jails immediately stopped the practice of honoring detainer requests. ICE’s presence at the jails, however, remains strong. Agents at the facilities can interview inmates and track the release of individuals of interest to the agency.

“Collaboration is the foundation of everything that we are doing."

Angel Melendez of the ICE New York Field Office, describing his agency's work with local authorities.

For law enforcement, the politics of cooperation are delicate.

Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini, who was police commissioner from November 2015 through 2017, told Newsday that the department’s approach to information-sharing balances what some ICE supporters want — unlimited cooperation that aids deportation — and what immigrant advocates prefer, the limited sharing of so-called sanctuary jurisdictions.

“When you tend to be in the middle,” Sini said, “you tend to be nuanced. You have no friends.”

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs in 2017, Sini said officers don’t inquire into the immigration status of witnesses, victims and those seeking assistance. Nassau has a similar policy.

“If individuals believe that they cannot freely cooperate with law enforcement because of their immigration status,” Sini told senators, “the mission of the police department and the safety of all residents are compromised.”

The issue is particularly sensitive in Suffolk, where police have been working toward full compliance with a 2014 settlement agreement with the Department of Justice aimed at eliminating discriminatory policing of Latinos.

Although ICE arrests have increased across Long Island, the agency has been significantly more active in Suffolk than in Nassau, according to researchers at Syracuse University. In the 2017 fiscal year and the first eight months of the 2018 fiscal year, the researchers identified 1,697 ICE arrests on Long Island. Of those, 1,143, or nearly 70 percent, were in Suffolk.

Despite the importance Singas, Ryder, Hart and Sini say they give to maintaining trust, many immigrants here illegally, and those close to them, remain wary of approaching the authorities. Because of that, they may miss out on help they need and that police doing their jobs well are able to provide.

‘I cry myself to sleep’

The girl is 15 and in 10th grade at a school in western Suffolk. Her mother is Teresa, the Mexican deli worker who calls Trump “ese Señor.” The girl spoke to Newsday with her mother’s permission and on the condition that she not be identified.

When she was 8, after the death of her Ecuadorian father, her godfather began to sexually abuse her. The abuse continued until she was 13.

“I had trusted him,” she said. “He was supposed to be like a father figure.”

The girl had long considered reporting him but stopped short, worried that doing so would draw law enforcement attention to her mother.

“I thought I had to go to court to talk about what happened to me and all that,” she said, “and that my mother would have to be taken away.”

As the girl matured and grew in confidence, she more often considered speaking out, even as Trump’s candidacy and the harassment at school added to her anguish about doing so.

“Ever since he started running for president and he started winning, I would hear it,” she said. “This kid would say to me, ‘Oh, go back to your country.’”

Harassment from that student, who wore a red MAGA hat, and some of his pals even occurred in class, she said. “I would respond to something with the wrong answer and he was talking to his friends and he would say, ‘This is why we need a wall and you need to go back to your country.’”

To which she more than once responded: I was born on Long Island.

“She protects us and she’s my mom, so the fear of her leaving and me not having a parent is nerve-racking. At times, I cry myself to sleep.”

A 15-year-old girl who held back on reporting her sexual abuse to protect her mother

As her godfather continued calling, asking to meet her, the harassment at school persisted. Her grades slumped, and her depression grew. In November 2016, she finally had enough.

“I couldn’t handle the weight,” she said.

She told her mother about the abuse and went to police. She was relieved when officers at Suffolk’s Fifth Precinct said they wouldn’t take her mother away. In response to her complaint, a jury convicted the girl’s godfather of sexually assaulting a minor and related charges. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The teenager’s grades and spirits picked up, particularly after she transferred to a school with more Latino students.

But worry over her mother being deported lingers.

“She protects us and she’s my mom,” the girl said, “so the fear of her leaving and me not having a parent is nerve-wracking. At times, I cry myself to sleep.”

With Sandra Peddie

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