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Suffer the immigrants

Since the election of Donald Trump, undocumented immigrants and the groups that work with them in Arkansas are dealing with a wave of fear.

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BAHENA: Protected by DACA, but still worried for friends and family.
  • BAHENA: Protected by DACA, but still worried for friends and family.

Miriam Bahena worries. Born in Mexico, she was brought to De Queen by her parents when she was 3 months old. She grew up there, pledged allegiance to the flag in the elementary school there, graduated from the high school there, works there now in a dental office.

NOW 21, Bahena is shielded from possible deportation by the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which curtailed the arrest and expulsion of undocumented people brought to the country as children. The program has allowed her to secure a work permit and stilled her mind about the possibility that she might be returned to a country she doesn't remember.

Many of her friends and family, however, don't have the same protections, and this — as is hammered home daily, weekly, hourly in the news — is no longer Obama's America. This is an America presided over by a man who kicked off his presidential campaign by descending a golden escalator to a microphone, into which he announced Mexican immigrants were rapists and criminals. After the election, there was even serious talk that he would do away with DACA. That has not come to pass, though the program's future remains unclear. The rumors of raids and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) checkpoints swirl daily in De Queen, and Bahena's mother and father have to leave the house to work. And so she worries.

"It's hard," Bahena said. "You have to have conversations with your parents like, 'What are you going to do if one day we go to the grocery store, get stopped by police, and we don't come back?' I have a 14-year-old sister that I would be responsible for if my parents were to get deported. There's no pathway for them to get a work permit."

According to the Pew Research Center, there are around 70,000 undocumented immigrants living in Arkansas, though the true number is hard to pin down. Arkansas ranks first in the percentage of immigrants living in the state without papers, with about 45 percent of the state's immigrant population living here illegally. Around 70 percent of undocumented immigrants in the state are Hispanic.

Since the election of Donald Trump, outreach groups have seen an unprecedented wave of anxiety and outright fear among immigrants in the state, both documented and undocumented. Bahena, for example, said that the fear of seeing families broken up over something as simple as a traffic stop for speeding or a broken taillight has caused many undocumented people she knows to avoid leaving the house except for work or emergencies, choosing to send their U.S.-born children to run errands and buy groceries.

Considering that there's a statue in New York urging the world to give us their tired, their poor, their huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, that should be concerning to every American.

MCDONALD: Says immigration laws are overcomplicated.
  • MCDONALD: Says immigration laws are overcomplicated.

Kathleen McDonald, a former Pulaski County deputy prosecutor, co-founded Little Rock's Beacon Legal Group, with an initial focus on technology law. In recent years, however, the firm has shifted almost entirely to immigration. It's an area of the law one can't really dabble in, McDonald said.

Speaking to the Arkansas Times on St. Patrick's Day, she noted that America has long had a love-hate relationship with immigrants. With the election of Trump, the "hate" part of that relationship seems to be coming to the fore. She said, somewhat ruefully, that he has been very good for her business. "It drives me crazy, because this is what our country is about: hardworking people coming over and making a life for themselves," she said. "If you work hard, and you do the right thing, and you're a good person, you should be able to have the American dream. But we're saying, 'No, no. You don't get to have that anymore. Only the people who came before.' "

While immigration law is her bread and butter, McDonald unreservedly calls the U.S. immigration code "ridiculous," a patchwork of rules and regulation that is as complicated or more than the U.S. tax code. "With one [immigration] form, you have to use blue ink, but with another, you have to use black ink," she said. "You have to follow the rules and that's fine and I understand that, but they've made certain parts of it absurd. If you're really trying to keep people out or make it a process to get in, don't talk about the ink. That shouldn't be the deciding factor."

McDonald said there are a lot of misconceptions about U.S. immigration law, some of them kept alive by politicians and citizens who don't actually care what the truth is, preferring instead to see all immigrants simply as job-stealers. A prime example, for instance, is the oft-repeated argument that undocumented immigrants should have "come to America the right way." The issue with that, McDonald said, is that the visa backlog is so huge that, depending on a person's home country, it could take 23 years to get approved to even apply. For those who entered the U.S. illegally, either by crossing the border without authorization or overstaying a work visa, there are additional problems. As established by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, anyone who illegally enters the U.S. and stays for more than 180 days is automatically barred from re-entry for three years if he or she ever leaves the country or surrenders to immigration authorities. Stay a full year, and you're barred for 10 years. "Anybody who has been here unlawfully is going to face some kind of bar, more than likely," McDonald said. "That creates a big hurdle."

McDonald said that one of her biggest concerns since the election of Trump is that undocumented people will be afraid to call the police if they're being victimized. As a prosecutor, she said, one of the first things she told undocumented victims of crime in meetings was that she didn't care about their status, specifically to defuse that worry. "It's bad because if someone is getting beat up or if they've been robbed, you want them to call the police. That's what the police are for. Luckily, in Little Rock and North Little Rock and other places too, the chiefs of police have specifically said, 'We're not trying to enforce immigration laws. We just want to enforce the laws of Arkansas. We're not going to be calling ICE every time we pull someone over.' The fact that they've said that, I think, is extremely important."

Trump's rhetoric and policies with regard to immigration make McDonald angry and sad. While she said she doesn't believe Trump to be a hateful racist, there were ways to accomplish what he wanted to do in less disruptive ways.

"It embarrasses me. America is supposed to be a leader," she said. "I think it's going to have a lot of negative ramifications that obviously were not intended that we'll have to deal with. There are probably some terrorists who are totally digging it. They're saying, 'Look! They're against us!' Would that not fire you up?"

Getting to a place where the country can affect real immigration reform, however, is almost unfathomably complicated. McDonald believes there's not much stomach among those who support Trump's aims for the kind of deep dive it would take to fix things. It's much easier to chant "Build the Wall" than to take on the country's labyrinthine immigration code.

"They want the tweet," she said. "And very little about immigration is the short, easy, simple tweet."

Kelsey Lam, co-founder and director at Little Rock-based immigrant outreach nonprofit El Zócalo, said that fear of arrest and deportation has always been an issue for the state's immigrant population, but has come to the fore since Trump's inauguration. Even among green card holders and those in the process of seeking legal residency, the anxiety is there, she said.

"Regardless of status and regardless of nationality, really we're seeing a lot of fear across everyone that we serve," she said. "Of course, for some people the issue is being scared of being deported or detained. But other people are more scared than before of being victims of hate crimes. People who have their documents are scared of having prejudice impact their lives. ... The whole thing is very sad. There's a kind of fear in peoples' eyes that's very fresh and difficult."

Lam said that El Zócalo has been offering guidance and information on what to do for immigrants who are pulled over by the police, and helping families make a "personal preparedness plan" of instructions and numbers to call in case a family member is arrested and deported. The group, now in its fifth year, has seen an uptick in requests for assistance from immigrants, she said, but attendance to programs that seek to empower and uplift their clients has fallen off. Lam attributes that to the fear.

"People have told us people are afraid to leave the house and less motivated to do things that would help them achieve other goals in this country right now," she said. "They're more defending their basic daily lives and families." Even so, she said, the people they serve still seem to have hope for their futures. "We did an activity with our clients where everyone had to say some number of hopes and then concerns for the country, and there were still significantly more hopes identified," she said. "People are still hopeful that things might not be as bad as some say, and that there will still be a future for them here. But I think they're maybe not as motivated to take action on those hopes right now because they really just need to be sure they're defending and prepared."

Maria Touchstone, acting director of North Little Rock's Seis Puentes Education and Resource Center, which provides support and educational opportunities for immigrants, has seen that strange mix of hope for the future and fear for the present. The English as a Second Language coordinator for the North Little Rock School District, Touchstone understands the immigrant experience. Born into dire poverty in Mexico, her parents brought her and her siblings to the U.S. in 1969 when she was 6 years old. She's since become a naturalized citizen. In those days, legally crossing the border from Mexico to the U.S. was as simple as paying a fee and signing some forms.

"They had five kids, living in poverty," she said. "They brought us here when the oldest was 6, to get an education, to become Americans and to change our lives. With a second-grade education, my father and mother were able to do that. That's the tragedy today. That family — my dad and mom, who had dreams for their kids to get an education — they don't have an avenue to do that now.

Seis Puentes, she said, may be the only standalone immigrant education center in the state. Staffed with volunteers, with classes taught by teachers from the Pulaski County Adult Education Center, their Tuesday and Thursday night ESL classes are usually packed.

"This is a haven," she said. "This is about learning and changing their lives. They know I'm like a cheerleader for them. I'm an immigrant from poverty in Mexico with no easy road. Just hard work and dedication. That's what they dream of."

To try to quell some of the fear and anxiety among their clients, Touchstone said, the center has brought in several guest speakers, including representatives of the Arkansas United Community Coalition and the Mexican Consulate and North Little Rock Police Chief Mike Davis. Since the election, she said, there's been a marked increase of interest in their ESL and GED classes.

"Because of the fear and the uncertainly, our classes are more heavily attended now," she said. "You'd think they'd be scared and aren't coming. They're coming because this is real. I think they understand that English proficiency is going to be part of the solution, if we can ever agree in this country to find a solution for this part of our country."

'THIS IS A HAVEN': Says director Maria Touchstone of the Seis Puentes Education and Resource Center in North Little Rock.
  • 'THIS IS A HAVEN': Says director Maria Touchstone of the Seis Puentes Education and Resource Center in North Little Rock.

Education, Touchstone said, is a fundamental human right. Never far from her mind, she said, is the fact that without education and the bravery of her parents in bringing her to America, she could have been trying to scrape out a living in Mexico. "I could have been one of those ladies selling gum on a corner in Mexico in a city somewhere," she said. "That could have been me. That's the kind of poverty I come from. The only reason that's not me is because somebody sent me to school. That's it."

Sooner or later, Touchstone said, the country will have to find a workable solution for the millions of undocumented immigrants who call the United States their home. Immigrants are and have been part of the fabric of this country since it was founded, she said, and she believes the U.S. will find its way back to being more welcoming.

"Our country has to come together, has to find a solution," she said. "Diversity is not going away. These people come in here after working all day, or working two jobs, some with very low literacy skills in their native countries. We have a lady from Russia. We have a guy from Turkey. That's not the majority, but it's a reminder that the world is a small place and this is a difficult time for our country."

Jose Aguilar Salazar, deputy Mexican consul in Little Rock, said the Mexican consulate has seen an almost threefold increase in requests for services since Election Day. To deal with the nationwide surge in requests for assistance, the Mexican government has established advocacy centers at the 50 Mexican consulates scattered around the U.S. That includes the consulate in Little Rock, which has given Mexican nationals access to programs and education about immigration law, as well as paid immigration attorneys to help them update and file paperwork related to immigration status.

"The main concern of the people is about their status here, the possibility of being deported," Salazar said. "Mainly they're concerned about breaking their families. Many of them have a family and children. When a person is deported automatically they can cease to be the main support of the family, emotionally speaking and financially speaking. It's a big concern." To help ease the strain, Salazar said, the consulate is constantly providing the public with information about ICE operations in the zone covered by the Little Rock consulate, which includes Oklahoma, Arkansas and portions of west Tennessee. That includes sending officials to personally verify or disprove when they hear a rumor about an ICE raid or checkpoint. Such rumors, Salazar said, have been widespread in recent months. So far, he said, they've seen no indication that ICE is conducting random raids or traffic stops in their area. Consular officials have also held meetings with police departments all over the state to gauge whether those departments have an interest in aggressively enforcing immigration laws.

"We always have had very good dialogue with the enforcement agencies," he said. "Mexico and the United States have maintained dialogue on this issue for many years. ICE authorities have provided us with very important information that they are not making any specific activity in this moment. What they are doing is they are after those people with criminal records and also people against whom there are criminal charges. That's the new instruction by the administration and they're going to do it. But they're not checking [papers] in the streets, or making raids. That is very good to know. That way, the people can be assured that they'll not be knocking at their doors."

Salazar believes that with immigrant labor forming the backbone of many industries in Arkansas, including the agricultural and construction industry, a crackdown on immigrants may backfire and harm the economy. "The reason why people emigrate from Mexico is to get a better income," Salazar said. "I can tell you that when people come to America and satisfy the original need for a better income, they start businesses. If there is this policy, it may hurt. ... It's not going to be a good thing for them, or for the productive areas of the United States. People are going to have fear, and by themselves they're going to say, 'I'm going to a place where I won't be under such strain.' "

'THE MAIN CONCERN IS STATUS': Says Deputy Mexican Consul Jose Aguilar Salazar.
  • 'THE MAIN CONCERN IS STATUS': Says Deputy Mexican Consul Jose Aguilar Salazar.

From a base in Fort Smith, Humberto Marquez, West Arkansas organizer for the Arkansas United Community Coalition, works extensively with undocumented immigrants, and knows their fears himself. Brought to the U.S. by his parents in 2000 when he was 5 years old, Marquez applied for DACA in 2012, and joined the AUCC as an advocate and organizer in 2014. As someone with many undocumented people in his circle of friends and family, Marquez said the rhetoric Trump used on the campaign trail was a frightening attempt to paint all immigrants as criminals. While there's been some relief that the Trump administration appears to be taking a hands-off approach to DACA for now, the fact that DACA doesn't cover Marquez's older, undocumented relatives is never off his mind.

"I know some people who have DACA are celebrating in a way, but I don't think people should be celebrating," he said. "Yes, there's the aspect of leaving DACA in place, but those who benefit from DACA, we have siblings, we have parents, we have other family members or friends who don't benefit from the DACA program. I feel that if our parents and our families are still living in the shadows, we're still living in the shadows."

Marquez said rumors about ICE crackdowns, highway checkpoints and raids on businesses are rampant in West Arkansas. His Facebook message inbox stays full of desperate inquiries for information, most of them based on something heard from a friend of a friend. Marquez spends a lot of his time these days running down rumors with local police departments, trying to dispel those grapevine concerns.

"A lot of people aren't driving, they're not taking their kids to school, they're not going out whatsoever on the weekends in case there's a checkpoint or something," he said. "We're trying to let the community know they can trust their police officers. We're also trying to train and explain to police officers that crimes will actually rise if our undocumented population is afraid of the police."

Some of the rumors, he believes, are deliberately planted to create fear. Though AUCC has been trying to educate the public through events and seminars on immigration status and the law, Marquez said attendance has been light due to widespread anxiety.

"We see it in peoples' faces," he said, "even to the point where they don't want even to show up to our events because they believe that the flyer of our event falls into the wrong hands, that person can call immigration and suddenly you have a raid or some kind of ICE operative at the event. ... If they're afraid to come to one of our presentations, we can imagine what it means to go out to work, or to go out shopping or go out and run an errand. "

As someone who loves the country and considers himself an American, Marquez said it's "frustrating and dehumanizing" to see the people he cares for limited in that way, when all they want to do is go to work and provide for their families. Growing up, he said, he was very hopeful about the vision of the U.S. as a welcoming and inclusive place. Since Trump was elected, he said, his perspective about America has changed.

"Realizing that the Trump administration was possible is a way of telling me that the system is indeed broken, systemic racism does exist, and that it's going to take more than just community organizing before we're liberated from the system of racism and oppression," he said. "Just seeing this has definitely changed my perspective on America, but my perspective has changed neither for the worse or the best. It's just changed. It's more realistic. It's more of an insight into what America is. America, which seems to be the greatest nation on earth, has a lot of flaws. As a world leader, it's sending a very wrong message on who we are to the rest of the world."

In De Queen, Miriam Bahena worries but still has hope for the country she loves. Keeping that hope alive has not always been easy. When she was in high school, she said, she worked hard to keep her grades up, served on the student council, tried anything she could to bump up her resume for when she applied for college.

"I was naive, I guess. I wasn't really thinking that there's qualifications you have to meet: You have to be a resident, you have to be a citizen for all the scholarships. That's when I started realizing, it doesn't matter if I have a 4.0 or if I've done all these other extracurriculars. I won't be able to meet any of the qualifications because I'm not a citizen or resident."

But still, she persisted. Filed for DACA. Worked 12-hour night shifts at the local chicken plant, showered off the blood, slept a few precious hours, and then got up to attend classes at the local community college, even though, because of her status, she had to pay out-of-state tuition that cost three times as much as the American-born kids with whom she'd graduated from high school. She wants to be a dental hygienist someday. Thanks to the work permit provided by DACA, she's a dental assistant now. Soon, she'll go in to renew her DACA status for the second time. She'll pay her $500 fee and keep striving for something better. She owes that to her parents, she said. A lot of the time when she's not working, she volunteers with the AUCC, helping host seminars on status and the law to try to cut through some of the fear that hangs over De Queen like a ghostly fog, detectable only to people without papers. It says something that she'd lined up four other people, all either undocumented or receiving DACA, to speak to the Arkansas Times in De Queen, but by the time a reporter and photographer drove over from Little Rock to the meeting place at the Sevier County Public Library, she was the only one to show up. She's seen attendance at local events dry up as well, brown faces evaporating from the crowds like they were never there.

It's hard, she said. Her niece is 8 and constantly worries about her mother being pulled over and deported. It's a fear Miriam Bahena knows herself, the same fear that kept her awake at night when she was a little girl, waiting for the sound of the opening door that meant her mother or father had returned safely from an errand. Now, at 21, the old fear of the unknowable dark has come back to her.

"Two weeks ago, my mom called me late at night," Bahena said. "She said, 'I need you to come pick me up, but don't tell your dad. I just got stopped by the police.' I immediately started freaking out and crying. I ran to where she was and told the police officer that I had a driver's license and asked to drive her home. He said, 'Yeah, just make sure she's not driving anymore.' Obviously she has to get around. What else are we going to do?"


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