Sacramento community leaders protest a planned town hall with Thomas Homan, the acting head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Ryan Lillis The Sacramento Bee
Sacramento community leaders protest a planned town hall with Thomas Homan, the acting head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Ryan Lillis The Sacramento Bee

Politics & Government

Living under Trump’s immigration crackdown proves expensive for undocumented families

By Hannah Knowles

hknowles@sacbee.com

July 28, 2017 04:00 AM

UPDATED July 28, 2017 04:00 AM

Antonio is a frugal spender these days.

No new computer. No more trips. A music lover, he used to buy lots of CDs, but he has stopped. The Sacramento resident’s kitchen, stocked up before with cookies and Doritos, now holds only what he, his wife and his daughters need for the week.

Since Donald Trump became president, the family has been saving for something he said he hopes never comes to pass: detention and possible deportation for immigrating to the country illegally.

“If we don’t need it, we don’t buy it,” said Antonio, who, like all of the immigrants The Bee interviewed for this story, asked to remain anonymous or be identified only by first name because of his and his family members’ immigration status.

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“We don’t spend money on any recreational activity anymore,” the 52-year-old man said. “Because you don’t know if you’re going to be here tomorrow. If you don’t have any money in the bank, how are you going to live?”

Undocumented immigrants and their advocates in Sacramento say a heightened fear of deportation, spurred by Trump’s harder stance on illegal immigration, has taken its toll on the budgets of many immigrant households this year. Amid the new uncertainty, people in the country illegally are more eager to hold onto their money and are reluctant to use government aid for which they are eligible, afraid that their personal information might help immigration enforcement.

Gloria, a 30-year-old undocumented mother of two who cleans houses in Sacramento, said last year’s election undercut her sense of security, even in a city that has pledged not to cooperate with federal immigration agents.

“Sometimes people feel like, OK, I’ve been here for 20 years, and in 20 years nothing happened to me,’ ” she said. “But right now it’s like, we are not from here and we don’t belong here.”

Laura Flores-Dixit, who provides legal help to undocumented people in Sacramento through the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said clients have mentioned withdrawing even their U.S. citizen children from services such as Medi-Cal and instead paying medical costs out of pocket or bringing their kids to the doctor less often.

“We really encourage individuals not to allow fear to get the better of them,” Flores-Dixit said.

Since Trump took office, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has broadened the pool of immigrants it targets for deportation. In February memos, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly instructed the agency to remove anyone who had come to the country illegally, not just those convicted of serious crimes, although the agency has focused on criminals.

Between Jan. 22 and April 29, ICE arrested 35 percent more people nationwide than during the same time period last year, according to the agency. While three-fourths of those arrested had criminal convictions, arrests of non-criminals also jumped from the previous year by 150 percent.

However, ICE arrests in the region overseen by its San Francisco office, which includes Northern California, dipped slightly from last year.

Concern even in ‘sanctuary cities’

As a so-called “sanctuary city,” Sacramento has resisted cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. Since 1985, the city has forbidden city employees, including police, from asking people about their immigration status. Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department officials do not ask about legal status either, but the department has a contract with ICE to hold immigrant detainees and regularly lets ICE into its facilities to use its data, county Sheriff Scott Jones has said.

The Public Policy Institute of California estimated 56,500 undocumented immigrants lived in Sacramento County in 2013, the most recent year for which it has data.

At the start of this year, Gloria said, she withdrew from Sacramento County’s Women, Infants and Children program, which gives food vouchers to low- to middle-income mothers and their young kids.

The vouchers amounted to about $50 a month, “not a lot,” she admitted, “but it really helped.” Eight months pregnant with her third child, she said she’s going to re-enroll soon despite her concerns because she needs the money until she can go back to work.

Samantha Mott, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said the program does not ask about immigration status as part of its application process and would not make note of it even if participants disclosed that they are in the country illegally. The program’s website explicitly states that non-citizens are eligible.

Most of the other social aid programs run by the county require citizenship or legal residency for enrollment. Regardless, said county spokeswoman Laura McCasland, officials don’t share information about undocumented immigrants who apply for benefits for themselves or family members, contrary to what many concerned callers to the county’s offices believe.

Despite such reassurances, Gloria said she remains suspicious.

“At this time, me and a couple friends, we are like, we don’t know right now what to expect with this government,” she said.

Carl Burton, president of the Sacramento group Republicans of River City, said he doesn’t mind that some government aid programs benefit people who came to the country unlawfully.

“If anybody needs help, America’s always been generous,” he said, emphasizing that he wants the U.S. to be a welcoming place for immigrants. He shows up each month at Memorial Auditorium’s naturalization ceremony to give new citizens American flags, encourage them to register as Republican voters and tell them “how happy we are” that they’ve chosen to come to the U.S.

However, Burton disapproves of using public money to help defend undocumented immigrants from deportation, as Sacramento and other cities have committed to do. While he feels “really sorry” for those who can’t wait to immigrate legally, he believes their needs shouldn’t be put ahead of American citizens’.

“We have a great homeless problem here in our community, and the mayor and the City Council always talk about it, and yet we don’t have much resources,” Burton said. “But we do have enough to take care of illegals.”

Litigation costs a big worry

Among the biggest potential new costs for immigrant families are hefty legal fees to stay in the country if immigration agents try to deport them. Many undocumented families such as Antonio’s are anxiously saving up in case they are arrested.

The Mission Asset Fund, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that aims to help borrowers stay out of debt, has compiled rough estimates of the costs that could follow from such an arrest. The organization estimates $3,000 to $5,000 for legal representation at a bond hearing, for example, or anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 in legal fees to resist deportation.

Mohan Kanungo, the Mission Asset Fund’s director of programs and engagement, recalled one client who built her case to stay in the U.S. around a plea for asylum, citing her history of being sexually assaulted in the country from which she emigrated. Just getting and translating the police documents that supported her case cost $3,000, Kanungo said.

The financial strain can extend beyond legal fees to the cost of lost wages from not being able to work. Antonio said he’s particularly eager to save money because, at his age, landing another job if he’s deported to Mexico could be challenging.

The father of three, who owns a janitorial business, sets aside money a little bit at time. He estimates his family has about $12,000 in savings.

Antonio said he has watched undocumented friends struggle after quitting their jobs quickly rather than getting into disputes with bosses or coworkers that could draw attention. According to immigrant advocates, undocumented workers are more reluctant in the current political climate to press for compensation when they are underpaid or injured on the job.

“What I’ve seen is a ton of people who regularly might have made health-and-safety or wage claims, or filed police reports, saying, ‘It’s not worth it for me,’ ” said Cal Soto, a worker-rights coordinator at the National Day Labor Organizing Network, during a news conference held earlier in July.

In the Sacramento area and statewide, public help is available to defray or fully cover legal fees for undocumented immigrants facing detention or deportation. In May, the City Council approved allocating up to as much as $300,000 to help a network of nonprofit groups provide legal aid as well as other services such as “know your rights” training and planning advice for families.

“While it may sound like there are a lot of resources out there – and I would encourage individuals to locate the resources that exist – the reality is that there are not anywhere near enough,” Flores-Dixit said.

Amid a push for aid to the undocumented, some immigrants say they’re not that fearful about deportation or worried about the cost of withstanding increased enforcement.

One undocumented man explained that after 18 years in the United States, he only rarely thinks about the possibility of arrest. Another immigrant, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico whose wife is undocumented, said he supports Trump’s goal of deporting people with criminal convictions.

“He’s right. Get them out of here,” he said.

Nevertheless, the Sacramento resident said he hoped for a path to legal residency for his wife, one that now seems less likely. His wife doesn’t need citizenship, he said. She mostly wants the legal standing that would provide access to benefits such as health coverage through his veterans’ health insurance, saving their family thousands of dollars.

“My wife helps the church,” he said. “She decorates the church Saturday and Sunday for Christ. She’s being good. There’s no crime.”

Hannah Knowles: 916-321-1141, @KnowlesHannah