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With or without threatened ICE raids, undocumented immigrants live with fear in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — Most days are infused with fear for Janet.

Sometimes it is like background noise, slightly distracting, annoying but without specific shape or form.

Other times, however, the terror is made real, more specific with news reports about federal immigration officials using facial recognition technology to scan driver’s license photos or threats of raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, like those promised by the president this weekend.

“I am worried,” said Janet, who asked to only be identified by that name to protect her identity. She and her husband are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, who are raising four children who are U.S. citizens.

“I am a person of faith, but I am worried. I don’t like to watch the news all the time because it takes my peace. But I also don’t want to be ignorant to everything going on around me. … More than myself, I’m worried about my husband because he’s been deported twice already.”

Janet shows children how to ring the bells during their Altar Service Ministry class at a Salt Lake County Catholic church on Friday, July 12, 2019.
Janet shows children how to ring the bells during their Altar Service Ministry class at a Salt Lake County Catholic church on Friday, July 12, 2019.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Janet is not alone in feeling heightened anxiety and fear with the news of new immigration raids being planned in several major cities. While officials say they’re targeting those with final deportation orders, some don’t believe there are limits to the announced sweeps.

“Absolutely,” said Richard Jaramillo, president of the Utah Coalition of La Raza, when asked if he sees more fear in the Hispanic community this week.

“We do see a lot of fear provoked by (President Donald) Trump’s tweets — fear provoked by the policies he’s proposing, and certainly with the direction ICE and the administration are going.”

The Trump administration’s constant focus on immigration enforcement, he said, has created more fear — but also more awareness.

“I think the community has gotten sadly used to the 2 a.m. tweets and volatile nature of the president,” Jaramillo said. “We’ve grown somewhat accustomed to day by day his calls for policy (changes), and that’s presented a need to be vigilant about what actually happens on the ground. We keep our eyes on Twitter and keep our finger on the pulse of what is going on in the community and with government agencies.”

Attorney Carlos Navarro said Sunday's threatened raids haven't caused additional fear among a population that might be getting used to the rhetoric.

"It seems they're starting to tune it out," he said, noting that most of the people he's working with have already been "discovered" by federal immigration officials and they're now dealing with the court system.

"They're used to living with this level of stress already."

He said those with deportation orders are known to federal officials.

"If the deportation order is fresh, ICE is good about keeping in contact," Navarro said. "They already know they're supposed to leave, and if they don't, they let them know to come and check in. If they don't, they know my client's family, their patterns and routine, and if they don't leave, they wait for them and arrest them. Lately that's been really rare."

But even if people don’t fear those specific issues, many still live with a constant anxiety of being ripped from the lives they’ve built and their American children.

“It’s scary because if (ICE officers) are around, and they see me walking, they might say, ‘She doesn’t look American’, and they can ask me questions and arrest me,” said a woman who asked to only be identified as Laura.

“Three weeks ago, my son told me they were having raids at (a grocery store in Rose Park). … When he told me that I was scared," she said. "When I heard that (there are raids), I don’t go out.”

Both Janet and Laura talked with the Deseret News about building a life in the shadows, a life that on paper doesn’t exist. Laura overstayed a tourist visa after coming to Utah from Brazil, while Janet paid a woman to have a friend bring her to the United States.

Crossing the desert into the U.S. was one of the most terrifying and treacherous things Janet has survived. Lost in the desolate sand, she said the "coyotes" would only give water to women who submitted to sexual contact. She carried only a Bible and a rosary, and she believes her prayers kept her from being abused.

But when she arrived, she lived in a house with 15 men, most of whom tried to harass or assault her, she said. They told her that immigration officers were nearby, and so she only dared go to work and home. That’s where she met her husband, quiet and hard working, and she decided, after just 15 days, that she’d be safer with a husband.

“I felt obliged to be with him,” she admitted. “The first 10 years in this country were the hardest of my life.”

She went home to Mexico twice, but traveling across the border has become too dangerous and too expensive, and that is part of what keeps her from going home.

“This is a problem I ponder a lot,” she said, crying freely as she speaks through an interpreter. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately that I should go back to Mexico. But I fear my children will not adapt to Mexico, and then, for their sakes, I would have to come back. And to do that, I would have to cross the desert, and it was extremely hard. … I really fear that.”

What she wants is a home where she can keep her family safe.

“There are times when I have felt at home here,” Janet said. “But I know there is a contradiction. I want to be in Mexico, but I can’t be in Mexico. I want to be here, and then I feel like I’m not accepted here.”

She chokes on sobs as she continues.

“Right now that I am here, seeing the mountains, I’m just asking God to give me a little house, a humble house, where I can have little animals, and I can raise my kids in peace, and my kids can be mentally healthy, and my husband can work in peace, and we can have peace.”

While both women have issues with some of Trump’s policies, they don’t blame him or his supporters for wanting to stop drug trafficking and crime that’s associated with illegal border crossings.

“I agree with that,” Janet said. “I even clap for Trump on that. You should not want the people who are damaging the country here. But if you see that most of the people are here contributing, helping, not damaging the country, don’t hurt them. Don’t separate the families. Those things really damage the children, and the children are the future of the world, not just one country.”

She points out that her husband, who was deported after being arrested for driving without a license or insurance, was sent home under the Obama administration. The biggest difference, she said, is how much more palpable she feels the disdain is for her because of her skin color.

“It’s like Trump opened a window to this,” she said. “I have some neighbors, and maybe I’m imagining it, but I feel like they can’t stand me. I’ve known them for four years, and it just feels weird now. It’s like Trump made people think we’re different and weird because of our race.”

Janet said when she sees who gets green cards and how, she grows more frustrated at how “broken” the U.S. immigration system is.

“I feel confined,” said Laura, who has two children who are citizens. “I don’t have job opportunities because I don’t have a green card. When I am driving, I am always looking for police.”

Janet cries throughout her conversation with the Deseret News, but she doesn’t want pity.

“I’m a human being, but I’m not fragile,” she said. “I don’t want people to look at me as ‘this poor woman.’”

She just wants to be seen as a wife and mother who is working hard to support her family and create a stronger, more loving community. She just wants to feel like her place in this world isn’t illegitimate or temporary.

“I feel like I’m in somebody else’s house,” she said. “I feel like I am not welcome. I feel like I’m disturbing people with my presence. … The circumstances that brought me here were not good. But not everything here is bad. My children were born here. The opportunity in their lives is going to be different than the opportunities that I had in my life.”

She wipes tears from her cheeks and glances, again, at the mountains that she finds so beautiful.

“I can’t just go back to Mexico and leave this country behind because it is a part of who I am now,” she said, a sob escaping as she tries to take a breath. “I just wish i could feel at home here.”

Her oldest son recently enlisted with the U.S. Marines. She worried that he did that to try and impact the immigration status of his parents. She said when he told her he’d signed up, “I couldn’t breathe.”

But now she has to do what she has always done, and surrender her fear to God, who she has always felt guiding her in her life.

“I believe ultimately we are all in God’s hands,” she said, her voice suddenly steady. “We’ve just go to do the best we can wherever we are. … Even with all the deportations and everything. … We’ve got to do our best, always, because our children are looking at us. Whenever they are at difficult times in their lives, they will look to heaven and say, ‘We are in your hands.’”