With less than a week until Donald Trump’s inauguration, immigrants in Fresno are becoming increasingly anxious about the president-elect’s looming promises to crack down on illegal immigration and change course on the Obama administration’s approach to legal immigration.
Trump’s policy proposals on immigration throughout the campaign were vague, leaving many immigrants preparing for the worst-case scenario. That uncertainty has immigration attorneys, who are used to supplying answers, on edge about how to advise their growing clientele.
It is disheartening to tell them things like, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘We’ll have to wait and see,’ which shouldn’t be in my vocabulary as an immigration attorney.
Attorney Deepak Ahluwalia
“I got into this work to help people who needed assistance,” said lawyer Deepak Ahluwalia. “It is disheartening to tell them things like, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘We’ll have to wait and see,’ which shouldn’t be in my vocabulary as an immigration attorney. But I’ve never given my clients false hopes.”
Never miss a local story.
Ahluwalia and other immigration attorneys in the Fresno area reported a significant increase in calls since Trump’s election, especially within the past week.
Many are from recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama administration’s 2012 program that protects undocumented immigrants who arrived as children from deportation and allows them to work legally. Those in the program, better known as DACA, now wonder if giving their information to the federal government was a bad idea, whether they should stop traveling and whether their home-buying decisions were the right ones.
But the calls aren’t just from the undocumented.
Ahluwalia specializes in asylum litigation, and said his clients – people who were persecuted in their home countries – have called to tell him things they heard Trump say on TV and ask whether their cases really have a fighting chance before they waste their money. “People are saying, ‘Is this even worth it? Should I just go back to the country that tortured me?’” he said. “Those are very hard things to hear.”
Applicants for H-1B visas, which are for highly skilled workers, also have called to ask him whether the Trump administration will reduce the number of visas available. Even legal residents – those who have held green cards for decades – want to apply for citizenship now because they worry Trump will establish an extreme vetting process, he said.
“Tensions are on the rise all across the board,” he said.
Attorney Lazaro Salazar said the last three months of the year usually are slower because of the holidays, but his calls doubled and he is booked solid for the next two months. He said at least half of the calls are from people who know they have no path to citizenship but want to know how to protect themselves. Most of his clients are undocumented farmworkers.
A couple people with criminal records paid to retain him as their attorney. One man recently arrested for DUI told him the organization that offered his driver treatment program suggested he contact a lawyer because immigration agents are known to patrol that area.
A few others have asked what document they can sign to give their friends custody of their children while retaining parental rights if they get detained by immigration officials. Salazar had never received such an inquiry, so he looked it up. It’s called an affidavit for child custody.
Salazar said the uncertainty diminishes lawyers’ credibility. “It’s very hard to provide competent advice,” he said. “People are disappointed because they expect us to have some kind of reliable answer, whether it’s positive or negative.”
Rosa Pereirra, Fresno branch manager at Self Help Federal Credit Union, said she has heard about several people in a different city who recently backed out of buying homes, saying they would rather save their downpayment money in case they eventually need an immigration attorney. Self Help offers loans to people who aren’t eligible for a Social Security number.
Attorneys point out that immigrants also were fearful before Trump’s election. The Obama administration oversaw the deportation of about 2.5 million immigrants, according to the latest statistics issued by the Department of Homeland Security in 2014.
Still, they say this level of fear before an administration change is unprecedented.
Trump has called for the deportation of up to 3 million unauthorized immigrants and the creation of a border wall. His website states that he will detain immigrants caught crossing the border, end sanctuary cities, terminate DACA, triple the number of immigration enforcement agents, and suspend the issuance of visas to places “where adequate screening cannot occur.”
But Trump’s ever-changing positions make it impossible to predict what will happen when he takes office. Early in his campaign, he vowed to deport all 11 million immigrants estimated to be here illegally. He also initially was adamant that Mexico would pay for the border wall, but now says the United States will build it and Mexico will pay us back. And despite what his website says, Trump promised in a December interview with Time Magazine to “work something out” for immigrants brought here illegally as children.
DACA future uncertain
Ahluwalia said he tells clients who are fearful of renewing their DACA status (work permits are valid for two years) that “the truth of the matter is they’re already in the system,” so if the program is ended the only thing in their control is losing the application fees. He tells new applicants to proceed at their own risk.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, an estimated 21,000 young unauthorized immigrants in Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Madera counties qualify for DACA.
Salazar helps DACA recipients apply for a special travel permission called advance parole. He said he will stop processing those applications after Thursday, the day before Trump’s inauguration, until he gets better clarity from the federal government on whether the permission will continue.
The Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative has hosted more than 200 workshops since 2014 on immigration services, including help applying for DACA, naturalization, visas for victims of crime and driver’s licenses under Assembly Bill 60, as well as information on what to do if stopped by police or immigration agents.
The public workshops have drawn overwhelming numbers of participants. Additional organizations, such as education institutions, health clinics and churches, reached out to the collaborative to provide information for their clients.
But chairman Jesus Martinez said the collaborative decided to stop offering help for first-time DACA applicants at the end of November because of the uncertainty. “There’s no guarantee that it will be processed,” he said. They still offer help to those renewing DACA benefits.
Upcoming immigration forums
When: Saturday, Jan. 14, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Where: Manchester Center, 1901 E. Shields Ave. in Fresno
Contact: Mi Familia Vota, 559-748-2735
When: Tuesday, Jan. 17, at 4 p.m.
Where: Parlier Youth Center, 745 Tulare St. in Parlier
Contact: 559-717-8405 or 559-426-5212