January 19, 2017
Undocumented immigrants pray, worry as Trump prepares to take office
By Stephen Hudak
Before she heads out at 4:30 every morning to scrub floors, Josie Torres prays she and her husband, Sergio, will be able to come home at day's end.
The couple are undocumented immigrants from Mexico.
"When I wake up, I say, 'Another day, oh, Jesus, take care of us,'" said Josie Torres, 47, who has lived in the United States without government permission since she was 12. "I worry ... "
As President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration approaches Friday, farmworkers and other immigrants in Central Florida are fretting too.
Trump declared during a contentious campaign that he would deport unauthorized immigrants and build "a great wall" along the U.S.' southern border.
The day after the election, phones rang nonstop at the office of Orlando attorney Gail Seeram, an immigration law specialist. She heard from Latinos and Muslims, doctors and landscapers, Brazilians and Brits.
"Worried is not the word I'd use," she said when asked to describe the mood of anguished immigrants seeking her help. "I'd say panic-stricken."
Seeram has tried to persuade them to know their rights if Trump keeps his promises. For instance, each has a right to a trial and the right to representation in an immigration court. She said the U.S. government can't, in most cases, toss someone out of the country without a hearing.
But she's also preached calm.
The lawyer said it's difficult to gauge the incoming president's true commitment to his campaign promises, including a vow to create a "special deportation task force."
For instance, he recently softened his stand on a promise to "immediately terminate" President Barack Obama's executive action that has allowed youthful immigrants to stay if they have no criminal history and meet educational criteria.
In a "60 Minutes" interview after the election, Trump said his priority was to jail or deport "people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers" before turning his attention to those who are here illegally but otherwise law-abiding.
Seeram said even if the new administration decides to ramp up deportations, backlogs in the justice system could delay court proceedings for two years, maybe longer.
"But it doesn't stop people from worrying, 'What's going to happen to me?' They hear deportation and are understandably scared, " said Seeram, former president of the Central Florida chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Fear is nothing new for immigrants, who often left their native land to escape poverty, oppression and violence, said Sister Ann Kendrick of the Hope CommUnity Center, an Apopka group that helps undocumented families and migrants.
Obama's administration removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders during his two-term presidency, more than any previous administration, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics.
"But it's been ratcheted up," said Kendrick, who has worked with immigrants for 45 years. "The rhetoric is more race-based and more mean-spirited and, well, just hateful."
She said about 100 members of the center's youth group, comprised mostly of immigrant high schoolers, many undocumented, shared taunts they heard at school after the election.
Once known as the Office for Farmworker Ministry, the center is hosting "Know Your Rights" and immigration workshops to educate undocumented people about their options.
"There's a lot of nervous people," said Jeannie Economos, who works for the Apopka-based Farmworker Association of Florida.
She estimated between 5,000 and 7,000 farmworkers, many undocumented, work in nurseries or harvest blueberries, cucumbers and strawberries in Central Florida fields.
Thousands of others have left the farms and greenhouses for construction, landscaping and housekeeping jobs, but are no safer.
Economos said a young woman whose family brought her as a baby to Florida from Mexico 20 years ago sought the association's help recently because she was frustrated by her immigration status.
"I wish I wasn't Mexican," she told Economos.
There is no easy path to citizenship for undocumented people like Josie and Sergio Torres, who live as anonymously as they can but agreed to have their names used in this story.
Trump wants them to return to their homeland and wait their turn, which may never come. Instead, they sweat out every day.
A traffic stop or fender-bender could lead to arrest and possibly deportation, which could separate Sergio, 45, a carpenter and electrician, from his three children, who were all born in the U.S. and, therefore, are citizens.
He does not have a drivers license because he does not have immigration documents, a requirement to get one.
The couple met at a Mexican restaurant in Texas, where Josie worked as a waitress and Sergio's boss, a customer, suggested he take her dancing. She turned him down the first time.
Despite a lifetime looking over their shoulders, they consider the U.S. their home and are grateful for their kids' opportunities.
Their eldest son is studying computer programming in college; a daughter works for a nonprofit; and their youngest, a third-grader, loves to read scary stories.
"As a father and as a mom, we always want something better for our kids," Sergio Torres said. "It is risky, yes, but worth the risk."