Since President Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration, previously unseen numbers of undocumented immigrant parents in Los Angeles, fearing the splintering of their families, have taken steps to ensure they have someone to care for their children in the event they are deported, according to several prominent immigrant rights organizations in L.A. The advocates say that in the past two months, the requests from those immigrants for information on how to authorize a guardian is at an all-time high.
The traditional route for appointing a legal guardian is through a court appearance, but that option has proved tricky now that agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in courthouses to make arrests. So immigrant parents have resorted to a seldom-used loophole under California law known as the caregiver affidavit.
Judy London, directing attorney of the Immigrants' Rights Project at Public Counsel, says that prior to this year she does not recall ever being asked about a caregiver affidavit in the know-your-rights training sessions she hosts. The undocumented parents in the audience almost never brought it up.
"Now probably the most common question is how do I make a family plan and what are the forms," London says.
A 2014 report by the Migration Policy Institute estimates that 489,000 children in L.A. County have at least one parent who is undocumented — the highest number of any county in the United States. The same study found that 410,000 of those children are U.S. citizens.
Most undocumented parents, if detained by ICE and thrust into removal proceedings, would choose to take their children with them, even if the children are U.S. citizens, advocates say. But London says there are cases of parents, especially from countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, who will choose to separate from their children rather than put their lives in jeopardy in countries wracked by drug-war violence.
The sudden interest in legal caregivers is a sign that immigrants are coping with the fear of ramped-up enforcement in L.A., according to London. "I stopped doing [the presentations] for a while because only five people would show up," she says. "Lately I have yet to do one that isn't filled. Whether a room has 25 seats or 125, every one of them is filled. It's a different world."
It is a phenomenon other prominent immigrant rights organizations in L.A. also have experienced. The Council of Mexican Federations (COFEM), an umbrella group of state and hometown associations from Mexico, holds community presentations on the rights of undocumented immigrants regularly in L.A. Anabella Bastida, the group's executive director, says hundreds of undocumented immigrants attend the presentations by COFEM every weekend — audiences larger than any she has seen at such trainings in her four years at the helm of the organization.
"It's heartbreaking seeing so many parents' concerns about the plight of [their] children if they're arrested or deported while going to work or taking their children to school," Bastida says. "I haven't seen that fear in the community before."
Areli is an undocumented mother of two children in South L.A. She attended one of the recent COFEM trainings and agreed to speak to L.A. Weekly, on the condition that her last name be withheld for fear of deportation.
Areli, 40, who works on a cleaning crew for several offices in the city, says she is in the process of completing the caregiver affidavit and of gathering legal documents such as birth certificates and passports for her daughters, ages 2 and 8.
Areli says ICE is ramping up sweeps near the area where she lives. Last month, the agency issued new guidelines rescinding the previous system of enforcement established under the Obama administration. President Obama had made violent and serious criminal offenders a priority for removal.
"It used to be that as long as you lived right and went to work, you could live without fear," Areli says. "But with the new rules one has to look at things differently."
She says of her and her husband's decision to file the caregiver affidavit: "The moment the new president took office and began to talk about new reforms in the area of immigration is when we decided we had to do it."
Areli works late at night; she drives her third-grader to school in the morning and her toddler to Mommy and Me meetups in the afternoon. She says she is preparing for the worst because "one never knows when you will end up in the wrong place."
The caregiver affidavit empowers the designated individual, usually a relative who is a U.S. citizen, to act as the child's legal guardian. It's a simple form the parent can complete and have notarized, ensuring the child will be enrolled in school and able to see a doctor, among other concerns.
Areli says she is appointing her brother, a U.S.-born citizen, as her daughters' legal guardian in the event she is detained. "He knows without having to ask that he'd be the guardian," she says. "We hope nothing happens and that we never have to use these resources they're giving us, that everything remains a precaution and nothing more."
Maira, 46, of Santa Clarita, is an undocumented mother of an 11-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter. Once her caregiver affidavit is notarized, it would transfer guardianship to her sisters, both American citizens.
Maira says her children's education is her foremost concern, and that she has been gathering educational equivalency documents "so if we ever needed to rejoin Mexican society, they'll have everything they need in terms of schools."
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Maira has lived in the United States for 14 years and says that in recent months the fear has been "asphyxiating." She says she briefly considered pulling her son out of youth soccer and her daughter out of drill team, for fear of being stopped on the way to a practice or game.
"For as long as I've lived here, I never worried like I have since Trump took the oath on Jan. 20," she says.
Maira says she has coped with the stress by obtaining legal training and consulting with immigration attorneys.
"Going and gathering information and learning my rights and gathering papers, I feel a bit better, and my life feels a bit more normal."