Eleven things to know about living in a sanctuary state
As the debate about immigration reform hit a new decibel this year, sanctuary cities, which have existed in some form for three decades (Berkeley, unsurprisingly, was the first), have become politicized to the point of distortion. In 2017, California passed its strongest statewide sanctuary laws with the California Values Act and the Immigrant Worker Protection Act. The laws were at once championed for protecting hardworking undocumented immigrants from deportation and lambasted for sheltering violent criminals. The reality: They do neither.
By Elise Craig, Haley Cohen Gilliland, Jesse Katz, Mike Kessler, Andy Kroll, Ashley Powers, and Joy Shan
Artwork by Daniel Segrove
Photographs by Kathya Landeros, Lisette Poole, and Kayla Reefer
Sanctuary laws are more limited than people think.
Soon after Donald Trump’s election, state Democrats summoned a group of lawyers and activists for an urgent call. Then–Senate President Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, the Legislature’s two leaders, had made headlines with a joint statement denouncing Trump’s victory. “Today, we woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land,” they wrote. The election results were “clearly inconsistent with the values of the people of California.… We will not be dragged back into the past. We will lead the resistance.” Now, de León and Rendon needed ideas for how to do that.
A few weeks later, de León introduced a bill, one that had been conceived on that call. SB 54, or the California Values Act — which took its name from the joint statement — proposed blocking local law enforcement from working with federal immigration authorities such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). De León vowed that the state of California would be a “wall of justice” for its undocumented residents.
This wasn’t California’s first foray into sanctuary-style policy. The state had passed two earlier measures to combat ICE raids under Barack Obama’s presidency: the Trust Act in 2013, which barred the practice of police and sheriffs holding undocumented people for ICE for anyone not charged with or convicted of certain felonies or misdemeanors, and the Truth Act in 2016, which limited ICE’s ability to visit and interview undocumented people held in local jails without their consent and required local authorities to inform noncitizens if ICE asked to put a hold on them. But the original draft of the California Values Act went much further, banning sheriffs and local police from assisting federal immigration enforcement. They couldn’t transfer anyone to ICE or question anyone for ICE or share personal information, like work or home addresses, that wasn’t publicly available. “Trump had gone around the country talking about his plans for a deportation force,” says Jessica Karp Bansal, the litigation director for National Day Laborer Organizing Network, who worked with de León’s office to draft SB 54. “The idea was: We’re having no part of that.”
As with the Trust and Truth acts, the main opposition to the sanctuary-state bill came from local sheriffs, who now had a powerful ally: the Trump administration. The California State Sheriffs’ Association sent a letter supporting Senator Jeff Sessions’s nomination as attorney general, and in turn Sessions supported the sheriffs’ efforts to defeat the California Values Act as it wound its way through the Legislature.
The bill’s fate came down to Governor Jerry Brown. Brown sympathized with undocumented residents who lived in fear, but he also insisted that California couldn’t block the federal government from doing its job. He demanded exceptions when the undocumented person had been convicted of a felony or when a judge has found probable cause. Protesters massed outside of de León’s office — “No exceptions! No exceptions!” — but de León told them that passing SB 54 was just the start, the baseline, of California’s resistance to Trump’s agenda.
Brown signed the California Values Act into law last October at his office in Sacramento. To this day, there is confusion over what the law does and doesn’t do, and about what a sanctuary state even is. Neither Brown nor de León wanted the bill characterized as a “sanctuary law,” but immigrant-rights groups and their opponents nevertheless adopted that phrase as shorthand.
In March, Sessions sued the state of California over sanctuary policy, arguing that it violates the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause and makes it “more difficult for federal immigration officers to carry out their responsibilities.” A federal judge upheld most of California’s law in July, a decision that delivered a major win for the state while leaving the door open to further challenges by the administration. “Standing aside,” District Court Judge John Mendez wrote, “does not equate to standing in the way.”
The sanctuary movement began in a small church in Tucson, Arizona.
In the summer of 1980, a group of Salvadoran refugees was crossing the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument west of Tucson. It was over the Fourth of July, and the coyote who took them across abandoned them. Thirteen died; 12 survived. When Border Patrol hospitalized the traumatized survivors, they asked me to provide pastoral care. That’s how I heard about the massacres and death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala.
After that, the question was, What’s our responsibility? The head of Tucson’s Immigration and Naturalization Service office advised us to offer legal aid, but after eight or nine months, it was clear that no one was getting political asylum. It became a serious ethical question for us.
A priest at the Catholic church in Nogales, Mexico, formed a shelter for Central American refugees. He would contact us when he had a family or individuals at great risk, political dissenters who would be killed at home. We began to house them at the church. After almost a year of what we thought was a secretive smuggling operation — providing food and medical care and emotional support — Border Patrol told one of our attorneys, “We know what you’re up to. Stop or we’ll indict you.” So we discussed it. “Well, what do we do now? Do we just sit around and wait to be indicted?” The other option was to go public and continue our work. I said, “Maybe we could call the church a ‘sanctuary’ for Central American refugees because that’s essentially what we’ve been doing.”
We took a vote by secret ballot. Only two voted no out of the whole congregation.
Once we made the decision, a woman in the congregation said, “Why don’t we ask other churches to join us?” And so we sent out a letter. Five churches joined, including one in Los Angeles, one in San Francisco.
We had between 50 and 100 Central American refugees living in the church at any one time. Over 13,000 during that decade. It was intense. Some still had bullets in them when they arrived. We taught them how to appear Mexican in case they were caught. That way they would just get bused back to Mexico, and then they could return to the shelter in Nogales, and we could try again. We taught them who the president of Mexico was, Mexico’s national holidays, the colors of the flag, words that were different in Mexico than in Central America. We told them not to carry identification.
Folks at greatest risk, we would get them to Canada. Canada would resettle them.
The idea of sanctuary evolved during the 1980s. People who were part of congregations that were part of the movement began to advocate for “cities of sanctuary.” The basic tenet was to have public employees refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials. And then colleges and universities raised the question, Could we be a part of this movement?
Not every place in California is pro-sanctuary.
Immigration policy doesn’t often fall under the auspices of local government, but after SB 54 passed, cities and counties up and down California took action, passing resolutions against it and filing amicus briefs in support of the Trump administration lawsuit against the state. Here are their arguments.
The Los Alamitos City Council voted 4-1 to exempt itself from SB 54.
A sound bite that gets us riled up at the local level is when the governor and the state attorney general make statements telling the federal government, “You will not use our police force for immigration enforcement.” From our perspective, the only police force the state has is the highway patrol. And if they want to prevent the highway patrol from working with ICE, that’s their right. Our taxpayers have paid for their police force.
— troy edgar, mayor of los alamitos
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 to join the federal lawsuit against California.
I have over 3,000 emails, thank-you letters, and postcards that have come in that support the county’s action. I have fewer than 50 emails from people who were upset. I’ve served three terms in elected office — I’ve never seen this level of feedback.
— kristin gaspar, san diego county board of supervisors
The Tulare County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution against SB 54 by 3-1.
Instead of ICE being able to work with local law enforcement in our jails, where we know we have bad guys and gals, they’re saying our hands are tied because of SB 54. Now ICE is raiding our businesses and breaking up families. We simply passed a resolution saying that we wanted the state to work with the feds. The rhetoric, of course, is that we just hate brown people. I wish there was some way that I could assure immigrants that we want them here.
— kuyler crocker, vice chair of tulare county board of supervisors
The Costa Mesa City Council approved a resolution against SB 54 by 3-2.
Back in 2006, we requested an ICE agent in our city jail. Over three years, about 1,300 people were referred to ICE. It was in the normal course of an officer’s duty. These were burglaries, robberies, drug offenses, sex offenses, weapons charges. It was a whole range of crimes. These were not just people committing an infraction. Whenever you remove that many criminals from a community, you are making it safer. I’m a former deputy sheriff. To know that we’re releasing criminals that we know will do harm back into the community — it boggles my mind.
— allan mansoor, mayor pro tem of costa mesa
The event that really politicized sanctuary laws was an accidental shooting.
On July 1, 2015, a 32-year-old white woman named Kathryn Steinle was fatally shot while walking along San Francisco’s Pier 14. Police arrested José Inés García Zárate, an undocumented homeless man who had previously been deported to Mexico and had recently been released from the local jail. García Zárate had found the gun on the pier moments before it accidentally fired, the bullet ricocheting and traveling 80 feet before striking Steinle. The event transfixed the country. Advocates and politicians (including then–presidential candidate Trump) turned Steinle into a symbol of the cost of protecting undocumented immigrants. A group of Republican legislators introduced a federal bill called “Kate’s Law,” which would increase sentences for anyone caught illegally re-entering the U.S. Speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle in late 2015, Liz Sullivan, the mother of Kate Steinle, said, “For Donald Trump, we were just what he needed — beautiful girl, San Francisco, illegal immigrant.… We were the perfect storm for that man.”
Late July 2015
The House of Representatives passes a bill to cut federal funding for sanctuary jurisdictions. It’s killed in the Senate.
The Steinle family files wrongful-death claims against San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, the Bureau of Land Management, and ICE. Later that month, García Zárate is formally charged with second-degree murder.
October 23, 2017
The trial against García Zárate begins.
November 30, 2017
The jury finds García Zárate not guilty of murder.
Five days after being acquitted of Steinle’s death, García Zárate was indicted by a federal grand jury for two counts of gun possession and one count of criminal forfeiture. He was taken into custody by U.S. Marshals in January and remains in jail today. If convicted, García Zárate faces up to ten years for each violation before deportation.
Many cops argue that sanctuary actually helps fight crime.
To patrol the streets of MacArthur Park, the boisterous epicenter of Central American L.A., is to practice a version of the serenity prayer. What the law says and what a largely foreign-born community displaced by war and poverty does to survive often collide; policing here means untangling the things you can change from those you must accept.
“Right there, no más,” Sergeant Joel Miller tells a knot of illegal vendors posted up on the sidewalks of this densely populated neighborhood, a mile or so west of downtown. A former Marine from Mississippi’s Pine Belt, who still shears his hair into a tight flattop, the 30-year Los Angeles Police Department veteran is working out the kinks of a canny new compromise: Rather than cite or arrest the neighborhood’s thousands of immigrant peddlers, many if not most undocumented, the LAPD is trying to nudge them into more orderly configurations.
“You’re too far this way. You know that, right?” says Miller, pointing to a woman frying pupusas on a propane-powered griddle atop a shopping cart. Others are hawking arroz con leche from thermos jugs, raw shrimp from baby strollers, secondhand clothes from rolling wardrobe racks — all violations of municipal code 42.00(b), the city’s longstanding anti-vending ordinance. “These people, I have no problem with them,” says Miller, plying a wad of chewing tobacco in his right cheek. “They’re entrepreneurs.”
Even before California passed the Values Act, Los Angeles was taking its own measures to resist Trump administration policies. To shield sidewalk vendors from a misdemeanor charge that could put them in ICE’s crosshairs, the City Council voted unanimously last year to decriminalize street vending. Meanwhile, to test regulated vending, Metro launched this quasi-legal zone outside the MacArthur Park subway station — an experiment that Miller, who heads an LAPD transit unit, is helping to implement.
“If you’re here illegally and you’re selling tortillas at Sixth and Alvarado, do I want to see you deported? No,” says Miller, whose mission this June morning is to keep the unlicensed street vendors from encroaching on the subway station’s approved vendors.
Even during its more iron-fisted chapters, the LAPD recognized that public safety depends on victims and witnesses coming forward without fear (local law enforcement agencies that support SB 54, from the Sacramento Police Department to the Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Office, make the same argument). Especially because these communities are often preyed upon: MacArthur Park’s gangs, including MS-13, have a grim history of extortion schemes, such as charging “rent” to sidewalk vendors and muscling them into compliance. And so since 1979, L.A. has forbidden officers from enforcing immigration laws or initiating contact to determine a person’s status.
“I want people to not be afraid to walk up to me and say, ‘Can you help me,’ without worrying about whether I’m going to deport them or not,” says Miller. “I don’t care where they come from — they’re residents of the city of Los Angeles, and I’m sworn to protect them.”
Since the passage of the California Values Act, the LAPD has made only minor revisions to its policy, such as eliminating questions about a subject’s birthplace from field interview cards. Miller views SB 54 as simply reaffirming what the department has been doing all along, though he does think that local politicians should “get their brains out of their socks” and encourage jail systems to collaborate with immigration authorities.
Out on the streets, Miller needs people to trust him. “My friend!” hollers Josefina Serrano, who has been navigating MacArthur Park’s improvised economy for a quarter-century. “Él es muy buena persona.”
“Yes, I know, I’m a great guy, but aquí, no más,” says Miller, waving back her mobile rice pudding cart, away from the permit-only zone. “She’s one of my entrepreneurs. She will creep around the corner if I let her.”
Some ICE officials think sanctuary laws have forced them to be more aggressive.
John Sandweg served as acting director of ICE under Obama. Before that, he was the chief legal officer to the Department of Homeland Security, during which he worked with ICE to shape the DHS’s broad approach to immigration.
ICE has the capacity to deport about 175,000 to 200,000 people a year. That’s less than 2 percent of the 11.5 million people here unlawfully. Our entire law enforcement philosophy was based on this one idea: that you could only deport 2 percent of the undocumented population, so make it the worst of the worst.
Trump’s rhetoric eliminated what little trust remains between ICE and local communities, and it creates a domino effect. States like California react because they feel compelled to protect their population; their politicians pass stringent sanctuary laws that restrict ICE access to jail. So the bad guys will most likely be back out on the street. But ICE doesn’t go away, because under this administration, they’re looking for everybody they can find.
It’s always easier to find people living in the same house for ten years with four kids, those people who show up to work every day. It takes more time and effort to find criminals. So when the administration puts pressure on ICE to up arrests, those arrests hit people who are less dangerous. And when you pair that with, Hey, we’re not going to allow you access to our jails, 500 officers in the L.A. area who used to focus on jails go off and patrol neighborhoods.
— as told to joy shan
Gregory J. Archambeault, head of ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations in San Diego
For the past 20 years, ICE agents have had a desk at the sheriff’s office. If somebody was booked on an armed robbery, we could conduct interviews to find out his status, and if he was an alien, then we’d put an immigration detainer on him, and then when he’s released from the sheriff’s custody, the sheriff would call us. Within 30 minutes, we’d have an officer there to take custody of that person and bring him back to our federal building. Whether he was on bond and whether he was convicted or not, we’d file removal proceedings with immigration court. That person would then go before an immigration judge. We don’t make the decisions to deport people, judges do. Now, with sanctuary policy, if I know someone is supposed to be released, I might have to send three officers to stand outside the jail release door for three hours, four hours, eight hours.
— as told to mike kessler
Many farmers, some of whom voted for Trump, feel unfairly exposed.
Joe Del Bosque Jr.’s most prized memento is a photo with his late father, standing in front of the first plot of land he acquired for Del Bosque Farms, now a 2,000-acre operation in Firebaugh, California, that grows almonds, asparagus, and organic melons. Del Bosque Jr. runs it with his wife, María Gloria, a Mexican immigrant who crossed into America alone at age 14. Though they lived just a mile from each other as teenagers, the couple met as adults when María Gloria asked Del Bosque Jr. for a job packing honeydew melons. Now she manages hundreds of workers.
Like most Central Valley farmers, Del Bosque Jr. is a Republican. But while many of his peers supported Trump, who promised water-policy reforms, Del Bosque Jr. couldn’t bring himself to vote for either Trump or Hillary Clinton. He wasn’t convinced Trump would back off his radical stances on immigration. The Del Bosques have struggled to find enough harvesters for years; Trump has made recruiting and retaining labor even worse. The state’s sanctuary laws, as they and one of their workers say, have done little to help.
Joe Del Bosque Jr.
I have neighbors here who farm as much as I do, but they have a fraction of the workers. Why? Because they grow only almonds, and it’s all mechanically done. Guys like me that harvest fresh fruit and vegetables? We depend on a lot of people. We’re trying to push immigration reform.
Most of our workers are living here permanently. Quite a few have their green card. Some have a temporary protected status, which they might lose under Trump. A number of others come from Mexico into Arizona in April or May and then work for us for three months. It’s a very uncertain labor force. We seem to be losing some every year. We’ve tried to source local people. But Mendota is like 10,000 people and Firebaugh, like 5,000 or 6,000. The melon industry alone requires thousands.
I didn’t see the point in this resistance and claiming this sanctuary-state thing. It just inflames the situation. We employers are kind of breaking the law hiring these people. So it’s just putting more light on us.
María Gloria Del Bosque
I go and I talk to our workers, and I tell them, “Nothing can happen to you here. We are here to protect you.” I tell them that they can be calm when they work because nobody can enter our fields without a warrant.
People are scared they’ll be taken and there won’t be anyone to take care of their kids. I tell them that they have to prepare, to make a notecard with the name and phone number of a person who they want to be in charge of their kids — just in case. If someone starts to pursue them, I tell them not to flee because of what happened in Delano [a couple fleeing ICE crashed their car into a tree and died, orphaning six children]. I have some workers who have six, seven, eight — one even has nine — children. They see themselves in that couple and think, That could have been me.
After Trump was elected, harvesters got afraid and stopped going to work here and at another company we work for. Even my mom got scared. She didn’t want to go outside. We go to Oregon for blueberry season, and last year we were afraid to go because we thought maybe there would be an inspection, that they might stop us while driving. We did end up going, but we stopped more, and only I drove. [Juan has DACA status.] She didn’t want to go to stores. I did all the shopping.
California has a sanctuary-state law, but it also seems to have more ICE agents. You hear about raids in factories here that you don’t hear about in Oregon.
Other employers — not just farmers — feel vulnerable, too.
The Mexican restaurant in the office parks of Riverside was a 40-mile slog from Marie Wood’s law office in Temecula, but the agenda for the monthly breakfast meeting of the Greater Riverside Employer Advisory Council addressed a topic close to home: the perplexing new requirements of AB 450, California’s Immigrant Worker Protection Act. So she fought her way up Interstate 215, plunked down $30 for a ticket, and took her seat under the gauzy white sashes of La Casa Ortega’s banquet room.
Nearly three dozen Inland Empire professionals had gathered over plates of eggs and beans and bacon: HR coordinators, payroll managers, safety directors — their companies ranging from a small dental office to the world’s largest manufacturer of high-pressure gas cylinders. The invitation promised to clarify AB 450, which, since January 1, could subject employers to fines of up to $10,000 if they failed to protect their workers from surprise ICE raids. Already, the U.S. government was challenging it in court.
Caught between a zero-tolerance administration and a proudly defiant state, California businesses faced unfamiliar obligations: Under the version of AB 450 in effect on this Wednesday morning in June, employers must refuse to let immigration agents enter nonpublic areas of a worksite unless they come armed with a court order; when authorities ask to inspect I-9 worker-eligibility forms, employers must notify their employees within 72 hours of such a request. ICE had responded with a series of high-profile crackdowns, hitting 77 Northern California and 122 Southern California businesses in sweeps earlier this year, as well as several large Central Valley farms that employ thousands.
“Employers are in a very, very difficult position,” said Wood, who is an immigration attorney, “and not having information is going to get them in trouble.”
As it turned out, this local chapter of the Employer Advisory Council had been unable to enlist anyone from the state to explain the ins and outs of AB 450. Instead, the nonprofit group invited an ICE agent with little knowledge of the state law — and no motivation to clarify it.
“President Trump basically took our handcuffs off, so we can now work,” said Special Agent Stephen Marin as he paced the room. Marin regaled the audience with war stories, including the horrors uncovered at a San Bernardino County furniture factory, where the owner allegedly hid illegal workers in an airless shipping container. “Oh my God,” gasped several attendees. He then urged everyone to join his agency’s Image program, which invites “exceptional” employers to collaborate with ICE.
“So, California AB 450 — you guys heard of that one?” Marin asked after about an hour. “I don’t know too much about this law. It’s not my law.”
“I have a question,” said an HR administrator for a mini-chain of convenience marts. “Say you walk into my office and ask to see our I-9s. We’ve been hearing from different lectures that we should never say, ‘Yeah, there they are.’ We’re supposed to take those three days no matter what.”
“I don’t know what lectures are telling you that,” said Marin.
“The state of California — they’re saying you’re not supposed to voluntarily hand it over,” said the administrator, explaining that such a rule put her in an impossible bind. If she complied with ICE, she would appear “suspicious” to the state, yet if she fulfilled her obligations under AB 450, she risked looking “crappy” to Marin.
“You can give it to me that day if you want,” said Marin.
It was then that Wood, already disappointed in this detour, could bite her tongue no longer. “I’m an immigration attorney,” she announced. “AB 450 now requires an employer, a California employer, to give notice to its workforce — that’s where the three days comes in.”
The competing advice would soon prove prescient. Less than a month later, a federal judge in Sacramento tossed out much of AB 450, finding that it “impermissibly infringed on the sovereignty of the United States” and discriminated against private employers who choose to cooperate with ICE. At the same time, Judge John Mendez refused to block the law’s three-day notice provision, which he described as a “courtesy” to employees and not, as the Trump administration argued, an impediment to immigration enforcement.
“Most employers still have no clue what their rights and responsibilities and liabilities are,” Wood said a few days after the court’s ruling. “I just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Asians are the fastest-growing undocumented group. And ICE tends to leave them alone.
Some sheriffs continue to communicate with ICE — indirectly.
When Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens decided in March to post convicted inmates’ release dates and times online — where ICE or anyone else could access them — she didn’t expect the fervor that would follow. SB 54, after all, allowed her to do it. Although the law forbade her from handing inmates convicted of lower-level offenses directly over to ICE upon release, it explicitly permitted law enforcement to make release information public. To Hutchens, posting the information online was an easy — and legal — way to fill that gap.
“We’re talking about crimes against persons,” she says. “Crimes where someone could get hurt. If something like the shooting of Kate Steinle happens, the people of Orange County are not going to look for people who voted for SB 54. They’re going to look for Sandra Hutchens.” (Orange County’s database doesn’t contain immigration status — only release information for convicted inmates.)
The county started publishing the information around the same time that the Orange County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution to join the Trump administration’s lawsuit against California. Together, the actions drew outrage from immigration groups and tweets of approval from the president. A Los Angeles Times headline referred to Hutchens’s decision as the “revolt of sanctuary law.” In a news conference, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra implied that he might take legal action against her.
The anger over Hutchens’s decision overlooks the fact that publishing release dates and times is not a new practice. Sheriff Margaret Mims of Fresno says that her department has been doing it for more than a decade to let families know when they can pick up loved ones from jail. She believes that sheriff’s departments should be allowed to cooperate with ICE, so she sees no reason to change the policy. San Diego County has been posting release dates for about eight months; Los Angeles County has been posting them for years. And shortly after Hutchens’s decision hit the news, the East Bay Times reported that the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office had started publishing the information in mid-February. Hutchens likes to point out that the California State Sheriffs’ Association lobbied for numerous changes to SB 54, but that the ability to post release dates of inmates was not one of them. That language had been there since the first draft.
Safe houses have emerged to protect undocumented people.
Since her husband, José, was deported last year, María’s life has resembled that of someone in witness protection. She changed towns and jobs and tried to vanish into the Southern California sprawl. She doesn’t readily tell people her name.* Never shares her address, either (one of the people hiding her whispered it to me over the phone). María, who, like her husband, is undocumented, was determined to stay until their two teenage daughters, both U.S. citizens, finished high school. (She also has a son who had already returned to Mexico.)
Last spring, she and José went to the local immigration office. They had drained their savings — $5,000 — to get legal advice, so they were dumbfounded when authorities separated them, called José a criminal, and deported him to Mexico. Their adviser had withheld a key fact: Because José had illegally re-entered the country, he couldn’t get permanent residency. The last time she saw him, it was through a detention-center window, his hand pressed against the glass.
María and her daughters lived at the address Immigration and Customs Enforcement had on file. What if they came for her? She picked up the girls from school.
“Whatever I could fit in my backpack, that’s what I took with me,” said Luz, her older daughter.
“I just remember taking my clothes and leaving and then never coming back,” said Ariella, her younger one.
Later, Ariella showed me what else she grabbed: a baseball wall print that says, “Don’t let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game” — a birthday gift from her dad. It’s one of the few mementos in the two-bedroom apartment, along with a crucifix, a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and some Last Supper coasters.
María’s fears were not unfounded. According to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, in the first months of the Trump administration, so-called “at-large” arrests in homes and on the streets jumped 55 percent from the previous year. Local officials can’t prevent these arrests, and ICE has revived the practice of also sweeping up “collaterals” — undocumented immigrants who happen to share a room, a car, or even a sidewalk with an ICE target.
Luz and Ariella wrapped up junior year at a second school. Their grades cratered. After months of couch surfing, María confided in a church friend, and that conversation led her to LA Voice. The multifaith group pairs churches with immigrants in need of financial, legal, medical, or housing assistance and has relocated about ten individuals and families. In María’s case, organizers contacted Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, one of more than 1,100 sanctuary congregations nationwide. Leo Baeck didn’t have facilities, such as a shower, to house a family on-site, but it sent two members to meet María anyway.
One was Rachel. Her children are close in age to Luz and Ariella. In their plight, she saw a sliver of what Jews endured in Nazi Germany: people rounded up, businesses shuttered — at the time, all perfectly legal. She told me, “It’s very hard to grow up as a Jew in this country and not ask yourself, ‘What would I have done? Would I have the courage to help in any way?’ ” By summer’s end, she and others secured an apartment for the family — a congregant is the guarantor — and U-Hauled over living and dining room sets and two beds. Along with five other congregations and LA Voice, they also raised thousands of dollars.
María radiates gratitude. (“My angel,” she said in English when I mentioned Rachel.) But there’s no escaping how small and scary her world has become. She mostly stays inside (when I visited, the lights were off and the blinds shuttered).
At the grocery store, if she senses someone hovering, she stiffens. Uniformed men are even more frightening; she once trembled through a long bus ride because a fellow passenger was a security guard. One day, she saw a van emblazoned with the name MINUTEMEN — a moving company, though she didn’t know that and panicked. Was it the vigilante border group?
“I feel like everyone around me is bad,” María said.
“I’m scared that she’s going to be detained,” Luz said.
“I’m scared that my mom’s going to leave me alone,” Ariella said.
The girls began senior year at a third school. They disappeared into their studies. “I’d rather not talk to anybody,” Luz said. “That way I wouldn’t feel like I need to tell someone.” They rescued their GPAs and, with the temple’s help, survived the college-application process. (María drove them across the county every Saturday for SAT prep — on surface streets, because she’s terrified of freeways.) Luz got into a well-regarded school up north. Ariella will stay here, with her mom, and attend community college. It’s hard to think much further ahead. When she turns 21, Luz can petition for her mom to get a green card, but that likely means many more years apart from José.
Outside the apartment, neighbor kids thwacked balls and laughed. Inside, María dabbed her wet eyes with her palms so her makeup wouldn’t smear. Luz dried her glasses. Ariella sank into a cushy chair, face blank.
“We’re all together,” Luz said, “but there’s always going to be that one person missing.”
María added, “When I taste food, I wonder what he’s eating, if he misses me, if he misses the family. If he’s even doing OK.”
The girls graduated high school the next day. María and Rachel sat on the visitors side of the football stadium, just above the 35-yard line. The class paraded down the track before crossing the field to rows of white folding chairs, a breeze billowing their gowns. María craned her neck. She spotted her daughters. She leaped up, waved frantically, and shouted their names.