In L.A., coping with the threat of deportation

Published on May 27th, 2008

Advocates are urging illegal immigrants to make plans for issues such as bail, lawyers and child caretakers.

By Paloma Esquivel
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

May 27, 2008

Patricia Riso, a mother of two, has been in the United States illegally for more than 30 years. And although she has seen immigration authorities arrest co-workers at the factory where she sews garments, she has never been targeted and never dwelt on the possibility of deportation.

But after seeing TV reports of recent immigration raids, Riso is asking questions she previously avoided: Who would care for her children — U.S. citizens — if she were deported? And what about rent, bills and food for her children?

"We have to plan for these things so that a bad thing doesn’t become worse," she said after attending a workshop that helps parents make family plans in case of deportation.

Work-site arrests of illegal immigrants have increased tenfold nationwide to nearly 5,000 last year, according to the federal government. Images of the raids have been splashed on television news reports and on the front pages of Spanish-language newspapers around the country.

The jump has led some illegal immigrant parents such as Riso to reconsider lackadaisical attitudes toward deportation.

Some advocates are asking immigrant families, many of which include at least one U.S. citizen, to make emergency plans for rent, bail and lawyers. Others are asking them to write certified letters designating caretakers for their U.S.-born children.

"People don’t want to think about these things; they think it’s never going to happen to them, but they need to prepare," said Antonio Bernabe of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "It’s like having a disaster plan.

"We save money to buy a big-screen television, to send to our home countries or to build a house," he said. "But we never save money in case we are deported."

Some people who favor more immigration controls say the fact that people are preparing for deportation proves that increased enforcement is a powerful deterrent.

"When you show that you’re going to enforce the law, however minimally, people understand that," said Rick Oltman, spokesman for Californians for Population Stabilization, a group that favors sharp reductions in all immigration. "The fact that they’re making plans shows that they understand that . . . and hopefully will communicate that to family and friends in their home country."

At an immigrant rights workshop at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church near USC, immigrant organizer Bernabe urged Riso and other parents to set aside money to be used in case they are picked up in an immigration raid.

Bail for illegal immigrants can cost about $1,500, payable in full, Bernabe said.

"There are no discounts."

For those who fight deportation, attorney fees can run from $2,000 to $5,000, he said.

For Walter, a construction worker who attended the workshop with his wife, teenage daughter and 1-year-old son, the message was stark.

"The rent. Who is going to pay the rent?" he asked.

These are questions he would rather not think about, Walter said. He asked that his last name not be used because he is an illegal immigrant.

"If I thought about the possibility of being deported every day, it would make me sick," Walter said. He also wondered what would happen to his children, the youngest of whom is a U.S. citizen.

In most cases, there are three options for dealing with children of deportees, said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Parents can take children with them — though the government usually will not pay for the trip. They can designate a caretaker in the United States; or, in the few cases in which a parent does not designate someone, the customs agency will call local social services.

But, after a few highly publicized work-site raids in which some adolescents were left to fend for themselves with little adult supervision while their parents were held in detention, some parents fear that their children might be left alone.

In a small community room behind Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights on a recent Friday, Matilde, 38, sat waiting to put her plan in writing. She asked that her last name not be published because she is an illegal immigrant. Her 5-year-old son, in a gray Spider-Man sweat shirt, fiddled with a pair of sunglasses next to her.

Organizer Rita Chairez called them into her office and showed Matilde a form letter. It asks parents to name a temporary guardian for their children in case they are arrested in a raid, she said. Parents should give a copy to their children’s school, keep one at home and leave another with the designated guardian. Chairez compared it to having a will.

"In case of any emergency, I give temporary custody of my children to?" she paused. "Who are you giving custody to?"

"My sister," Matilde said.

After she answered all the questions on the form, Matilde returned to the community room and waited to sign it in front of a notary. She said she has been in the U.S. for 15 years. Her two children were born here and are "accustomed to life in the United States."

Matilde had never talked about the possibility of deportation with her children but she would share the plan with her 11-year-old daughter later that day, she said.

If anything happens, the children would stay indefinitely with an aunt who is in the country legally, she said.

"If one day I don’t come back home, I don’t want them to get scared," Matilde said.

Walter, who attended the workshop near USC, hasn’t decided what to do with his children. But he said he would start preparing, even if it’s just by saving "little by little, just in case that moment does come. Maybe $10, $15, $20 every paycheck."

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