The phones have been ringing nearly nonstop since the year began. The callers need to know their rights, and they have questions they hope immigration lawyers can answer. Is there is any truth to the rumors about raids floating around the neighborhood? Do they have to let ICE into their house if the agents don't have a warrant? Will they get picked up if they go to court for a hearing? Will they get picked up if they don't go to court? Will they get sent away from their home if they go to community service, or if they celebrate their 18th birthday? If they report being sexually assaulted, could they be sent back to Mexico? Is there anything they can do to lessen the chance they will be detained?
Right now, many of these questions don't have answers, or the answers are dependent on the least reliable variable of all: whatever thoughts happen to be passing between Donald Trump's ears on a given day. And for undocumented immigrants across the country struggling to patch up the holes left by detained family members' absences, this lack of answers is especially difficult when you can't speak English, or have nowhere else to turn for help.
Detention can be a long, expensive, emotion-wringing experience, especially when those being held are young, or have young children. Bail for immigration detainees is often so costly that families have only one option: leaving their loved ones locked up. The cost of keeping in touch with those detained — or keeping their hopes of release alive — can be daunting. Trump may not be outpacing Barack Obama's deportation numbers, but he does appear to be targeting those without violent criminal records more. And as the Washington Post reports, the president has called for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hire 10,000 more agents. The anecdotes of undocumented individuals being harshly punished for the slightest missteps have a lot of immigrants terrified.
We spoke to five people who watched a family member or coworker deal with detention to see what happens to those left behind in the aftermath of a visit from ICE.
Maria* used to look forward to the end of the week — that moment when she'd get to give her youngest son a lingering hug during the nine months he spent at the Orange County Correctional Facility. She traveled a long way for that hug, taking the subway to Manhattan, then getting on a bus to Goshen, New York. The round trip from the Bronx cost about $58 for her and her youngest daughter, and took about six hours. They would bring Chris extra money for the commissary, and he would apologize for the situation he'd put his mom in.
It all began when he ended up in juvenile detention at 16 (the crime was sealed, given his age). He was released after two years, but didn't get to spend a day as a free man before ICE picked him up. He remained in detention for nearly a year — often in solitary confinement, for no clear reason — before telling his lawyers to stop fighting and just let him be deported to Mexico. He got on a plane in March. There are no more weekly hugs. Maria doesn't know when she'll ever be able to see him again.
She worked every odd job she could find to make enough money to deal with all the unforeseen costs of losing her son — the trips, the allowance, the legal fees. She'd already been working at least 40 hours a week packaging frozen meat in a factory, and tried to do some cleaning on the side. She says running is her release now, when she has the time, listening to love songs as she jogs down the street. But she knows she has to be brave for her other four kids. Only her youngest, who writes her brother letters covered in little hearts every day, is an American citizen.
Maria and Chris talk on the phone daily, the calls stretching longest when all his siblings crowd around a screen to FaceTime. Chris tells them what it's like to wash clothes outside, about the soccer team he started, the tacos he bought (the first he'd eaten in years), the fact that he's trying to get a job at a market, how lonely he feels.
The first thing Chris did after being deported was visit his grandmother's grave. Maria had come to New York when she was 21; Chris was only 3 months old, and his grandmother took care of him back in Mexico. Shortly before he followed his mom north, his grandma died. Maria is convinced that her mother’s death weighed heavily on her son, and might have sparked the behavior that ultimately sent him back to where she was buried.
"Why was my son treated like that? People do worse things and don't get punished so harshly," she told MTV News in the Bronx Defenders office, her lawyer translating. "He did this one thing. Why him?" But she's already bracing for another fight. Her other son might be in danger of going through the same detention ordeal.
Two days after Chris was removed from the United States, the family's attorney received a letter saying that there was a possibility he could have stayed in the country, if only he had waited. But he couldn't take being behind bars any longer. He is 19. Right now, he is free for the first time in nearly three years.
Rocio Ayala is only three years older than her brother, Emmanuel Ayala Frutos, but she still takes her big-sister duties seriously. Rocio was there for Emmanuel when their family left Mexico when he was only 6. She was there when he cried while learning to read. The siblings were ecstatic when President Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the policy that would let them worry less about being forced to return to a place they didn't really remember. Rocio eventually went to Portland State University for pre-med; back at home, Emmanuel was still trying to keep up with his academics. He went to summer school and night classes, fell in love with drawing in his free time, and eventually graduated from high school, his family bursting with pride.
Being a big sister has been harder for Rocio this past year. Back in September, a few months after Emmanuel started working at a paintbrush factory, he started to get anxious, a symptom of what his family would soon learn was undiagnosed bipolar disorder. He was arrested in November for flashing a butterfly knife at someone, then taken to a psychiatric unit after a mental breakdown. Things got worse; in January, he was hit by a car while skateboarding. He broke both his legs — his bone protruded from one — and was in the hospital for weeks. He drew to pass the time. In February, a judge cleared his charge, saying he wasn't a threat, as long as he did community service and anger management classes. He was finally on the right medication, and was thinking about training to become a tattoo artist.
After all that, Emmanuel had to deal with updating his recently expired DACA status in March. When ICE agents arrived at his house, he assumed they were there about his application, and followed them to their office. Instead, he was detained — no warrant required, due to his previous criminal offense. He no longer had access to the exact drugs that helped keep his bipolar disorder and anxiety under control. He wasn't given a wheelchair for at least four days. Although he had brought his walker with him, moving still hurt. Getting pain medication required covering a long distance, or at least it seemed that way given how excruciating it felt. He sometimes turned back without making it to his meds, returning to bed to see if sleep could work as alternative medicine. It didn't.
Emmanuel talked to his sister on the phone every day. Her college scholarship had run out, she wasn't eligible for financial aid, and she couldn't afford to go anymore. Right now, she's working at a company that makes vegan beauty products, trying to make enough money to go back. The week after her brother was detained, it was hard to concentrate on the job; she kept getting phone call after phone call about his case. Between the legal fees and his leftover hospital tab, bills have gotten intense.
Eighteen days after he was detained, Emmanuel was finally released on $10,000 bail. His sister was there with a wheelchair outside the facility to greet him. They hugged and cried, and his friends all stopped by his house later to see him. But she's still worried. Emmanuel was taken in the same raid that picked up dozens of other undocumented immigrants across the Northwest, including at least one other DACA recipient. Portland recently declared itself a sanctuary city, but that doesn't mean ICE can't still find the undocumented residents there. "Now that he's been detained," Rocio said shortly before his release, "who's to say they won't come for me or anyone else?"
Twenty-year-old Edith Galvan was on spring break when her boyfriend Jeffrey Noyola's father was arrested. Vicente Marcial Noyola was dropping three of his seven children — Miguel, 5, Crystal, 8, and Gabriel, 11 — at the bus stop on March 7, and they watched as he was taken away. They are all U.S. citizens; their father, however, is not.
The elder Noyola had failed to appear in court over a ticket (his family, citing some confusion with their lawyer, says he wasn't aware that he had to go). There is an ICE hold on him now, because of his arrest. If released from jail, Noyola could be sent directly to a detention facility. His children, especially those who watched the police take him away, are terrified that he could be deported to Mexico.
Edith is also not a U.S. citizen; a freshman at Meredith College in Raleigh, she is a DREAMer whose family left Mexico when she was 6. After watching what happened to her boyfriend's dad, she's now stressed out about the undocumented members of her own family. "I'm worried about my mom all the time," she says. "The fact that this could potentially happen to her is very scary. Some people don't want their children to drive to work or school because of the possibility of them being taken away."
Edith and Jeffrey started dating when she was 17, and have been together for two and a half years. Jeffrey, now 21, is swamped with work at his cousin's carpentry company, as well as dealing with his father's legal problems. His 17-year-old sister Alisha quit her job to help cook and clean at home. Edith, a full-time student, also works a part-time retail job — and now spends nearly all the rest of her time helping Jeffrey’s young siblings with homework, dropping them off at the bus stop, and talking to the press about Vicente's situation. She has tried to explain what's happening to Miguel, Crystal, and Gabriel, who were already torn up about the fact that their parents just separated. "They are scared that they're not going to see their dad," she says. "Crystal just thinks that Jeffrey doesn't have enough money, and [that] if he gets that money, their dad can come home."
The kids talk to their dad nearly every day. Vicente isn't doing very well; he has type 2 diabetes, and the rice and bread reliably served in jail has made his blood pressure spike. He had surgery on his leg in October, and Jeffrey says that the bone infection that prompted it might be returning. His lawyer is working on a deal to get him released, but for now, he is still stuck in a cell.
Edith thought she would be a studio-art major when she started college, but she is now deeply invested in social work. She organized a vigil for Vicente, attended by about 50 people, in late March. Dealing with finals recently, however, meant helping Jeffrey less. She's trying to do well in school, especially since she doesn't know what might come next. "It's scary not knowing what my future is going to look like," she says. "Especially when Trump was campaigning to end DACA, it was scary to know that I could lose my job, lose my license, or not be able to graduate [from] school."
Zully Palacios, 23, and Enrique Balcazar, 24, were driving home from work in Burlington when a van with Massachusetts plates pulled them over. ICE agents started screaming at them, unbuckled their seat belts, and drove them off to a detention facility.
The couple know their rights; they work as activists for Migrant Justice, a group that tries to help protect and educate undocumented farmworkers on dairy farms and orchards in Vermont. Balcazar came to the U.S. from Mexico six years ago and became a dairy worker, just like his parents, before getting involved with Migrant Justice. Palacios came from Peru two years ago, and got involved with workers' rights after watching a friend get arrested.
They were held in Dover, New Hampshire, for 11 days. Balcazar's cellmate, 23-year-old Alex Carrillo, is still there. He was detained en route to the Chittenden County courthouse, where his misdemeanor DUI charge was to be cleared. A judge later denied him bond because of that same cleared charge.
Carrillo's wife, a 21-year-old American citizen, was there to greet Zully and Enrique when they were released, even though she knew her husband wasn't with them. Carrillo's 4-year-old daughter doesn't really understand what's happening. "She's asking for her dad," Balcazar says. "Asking where is he, when is he going to be back." Carrillo's wife was pregnant when he was taken. She has since miscarried.
Palacios and Balcazar immediately went back to work after getting out, trying to get Carrillo home. They are still holding rallies, the latest of which happened on May Day. About a month ago they went to Harvard to talk to students about efforts to get Ben & Jerry's — which works hard to present itself as a progressive brand — to do more for the farmworkers in its supply chain.
Balcazar recently met with the state attorney general to discuss possible policy changes. He and Palacios believe they were targeted because of their activism, and felt like officers at the detention center tried to make it harder for them to communicate with activists on the outside — booking them under a misspelling of their name, not letting them make calls. But, when they got out, "we were ready to come back and keep fighting for our rights," Palacios says. "And that's what we're going to continue to do until we're victorious."
Everything that happened in the past week makes no sense to Iracema Flores. Her nephew, Erik Javier Flores Hernandez, got a visit from ICE for his 18th birthday. He doesn't have a criminal record, and to Flores, he is still just a kid. "We're living in America," she says. "We have laws. We have rights."
Hernandez left Mexico last year. His lawyers at the Immigrant Defenders Law Center say he was a victim of abuse and came to the U.S. to escape cartel violence. He was living in a youth shelter in Los Angeles while his asylum case was pending, but that did not prevent ICE from sweeping him up as soon as he was no longer legally a child. Hernandez is now in adult detention in Orange County, and his lawyers are trying to figure out whether he will get bond, and how long he needs to be in there. His next asylum hearing won't take place until later this month, which means he could remain locked up for weeks.
Flores believes her sister, Hernandez’s mother, is dead, killed by drug traffickers. Flores herself came to the U.S. in 1995, and is now a resident. Both of her children are American citizens. Hernandez and his sister lived with her for a few years back when he was a 7-year-old kid who loved soccer. She spoke to him at least once a week when he was at the shelter, and he was sad and scared enough that he spoke of wanting to just go back to Mexico, despite the risk. Flores has spent the past few days gathering a flurry of paperwork and legal documents to try to get him released. Meanwhile, Hernandez's sister, still a minor, is in Mexico, and asked her aunt on the phone if her brother would be coming back or staying in California. Flores has no idea; she hasn't been able to talk to Hernandez since ICE took him. Her brother is trying to help, but he's far away in Texas.
This whole ordeal makes no sense to Flores. She came to America because of the laws, the structure, the relative lack of violence. Is this happening because of what's going on with the Trump administration? "I don't know what is happening," she says. "I don't know what to do."
All the information she has comes from the Immigrant Defenders Law Center. Twenty-seven-year-old Jennefer Canales-Pelaez, who works at the center and briefly worked on Erik's case, has some inkling of what she's going through. When she was only 11, her father was deported. She didn't really know him, but it seemed like there was a possibility of her parents reconciling — at least until he was taken away.
While he was in detention in 2001, Canales-Pelaez's fifth-grade class took a trip to the White House, and she was chosen to give a gift to first lady Laura Bush. She told Bush that she had an extra present for her husband, and ran to her backpack to grab a packet with information on her father's case, including copies of all the letters she had written to local officials back in Texas. Bush was somewhat shocked, and her school wasn't too pleased with the surprise, but it did result in a subsequent letter from the White House, asking for more information about her father. Her father was deported anyway. They haven't spoken since 2004 — and she learned that they probably wouldn't have been close even if he had stayed — but she learned an important lesson: It's hard to make change happen without the extra oomph of authority.
So she became a lawyer, and now works with minors seeking asylum, many of whom are victims of trauma. She's had lots of success with getting her young clients released, but says that her job has gotten more heartbreaking lately. The Trump administration has made happy endings for young immigrants seem more aspirational than likely.
And it's not like problems evaporate as soon as someone, especially a young person, is released from detention. "It's like dumping an infant in the deep end of the pool and expecting them to swim and blow bubbles at the same time," she says. Canales-Pelaez says she's ready for the next four years, though. "I've been preparing for it all my life."
* Some names have been changed.