(This story originally appeared in the Bradenton Herald)
MANATEE — Madian Luna is fraught with worry. Her mother could be deported back to Mexico — a terrifying pill to swallow for an 8-year-old.
“I feel bad, real bad if my mom went to back to Mexico and we’ll be staying the rest of our lives here,” she said softly in her Bradenton home, her dark brown eyes looking up at the living room ceiling as she fought back tears. “I don’t want her to go back because we came over here to have a better life.”
Madian’s mother, Simey Luna, stood just outside their Bradenton home as her other children played. Luna, 29, is undocumented. In 2007, she left behind Veracruz, Mexico, and a life she says was stricken by dire poverty and abuse at the hands of her mother.
Luna was desperate to flee to a safer country, one filled with promise. And America, she was told, was it.
The day after Donald Trump was elected president, Madian said she and her peers at school talked about the election results. “‘We don’t want Donald Trump to be our president,’” Madian recalled a friend saying.
While Trump’s victory delighted many of his supporters in Manatee County, an intense panic is spreading among U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. Madian and others like her fear their parents will be taken from them by a president-elect who has promised to put an end to illegal immigration.
I feel bad, real bad if my mom went to back to Mexico and we’ll be staying the rest of our lives here. I don’t want her to go back because we came over here to have a better life.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said in June 2015 when he announced his candidacy, making illegal immigration as a top priority for his campaign. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
In his first 100 days of office, Trump plans to begin the removal of more than 2 million criminal undocumented immigrants from the United States and cancel visas to foreign countries that won’t take them back, and work to enact the “End Illegal Immigration Act,” which would fully fund the construction of a wall on the country’s southern border with the expectation that Mexico will reimburse its cost. Since the election, Trump has said he would accept a fence for certain areas along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Once sworn in, Trump also plans on canceling all federal funding to “sanctuary” cities — cities that have laws or policies in place that prevent their employees from cooperating with efforts by federal immigration enforcement officials.
Deputies in Manatee County turn undocumented immigrants who are arrested over to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials if there is an order by an immigration judge, according to Manatee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Dave Bristow.
“We let ICE know and, if in fact there is an order for them, then ICE can pick them up,” he said.
There’s no real way to estimate how many undocumented immigrants there are here in Manatee County, but according to the Pew Research Center there were 11.1 million living in the United States in 2014.
“It’s true that perhaps I didn’t come to this country in the best way, but I didn’t come here with the intent to harm anyone,” Luna said in Spanish. “I didn’t come with the intent to harm others, I simply came with the same search for the dream of having a better life.”
Luna said seeing Madian worry like this crushes all hope for the future of her children. It crushes the dream she has long held for them — to have a brighter future than she has had.
“It’s time the Hispanic community begins to lose the fear, even if we’re threatened,” Luna said. “And it’s not for us, it’s for our children.”
The consequences that some of these children might face are the result of the parents’ decision, their conscious decision, to violate the law.
There are many critics who argue these children could avoid such dread if their parents had chosen to come to the United States legally.
“The consequences that some of these children might face are the result of the parents’ decision, their conscious decision, to violate the law,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that seeks to restrict immigration. “In every other area of law, without exception, when parents violate laws and other family members are put at some disadvantage as a result, we hold the parents accountable for the impact on family members.”
Doing otherwise, Mehlman said, sets children up as human shields. Trump’s 100-day action plan, the FAIR spokesman said, is a good start.
“I know there are groups out there that advocate on behalf of criminal aliens,” Mehlman said. “The overwhelming majority of people in this country would have no problem at all with removal of people who are here illegally and also have committed other crimes once they’re here in the United States.”
The Trump effect
Many call it the “Trump effect.” In the days since Trump was elected, there have been a growing number of reports of bullying and harassment directed at minorities. In Michigan, a small group of students at a middle school began chanting “build the wall” to the dismay of others. At the University of Pennsylvania, black students were being added to group messages with racist images and invitations to a “daily lynching.” In South Los Angeles, a substitute teacher told his students their parents would be deported.
Madian said a boy recently ordered her “back to Mexico” — though she was born in Fort Myers.
“In the immigrant community, there is a sense of despair and fear based on the tone of the narrative, not only in Sarasota and Manatee, but across the nation, that has been propelled against minorities, immigrants,” said Luz Corcuera, executive director of Unidos Now, a local non-profit organization that works to elevate the quality of life of the Latino community through education. “With the uncertainty comes some level of fear about the unknown, what’s going to happen and what the reaction is going to be against minorities. They see minorities and they assume everyone is undocumented and call you illegal. That brings a level of uncertainty and fear in people — why are they all of a sudden singling me out? How come now I stand out from the crowd? What have I done wrong?”
But there are many caring people, Corcuera noted, who are concerned about the well-being of others, especially minorities and immigrants. Just the other day, a group of girls stopped by the Unidos Now office in Sarasota with homemade cookies and a card that read: “Please know that we support you as valued members of our community and we are standing with you.”
In the immigrant community, there is a sense of despair and fear based on the tone of the narrative, not only in Sarasota and Manatee, but across the nation, that has been propelled against minorities, immigrants.
“That’s just an example of how some people care,” Corcuera said. “I want to make sure that the whole immigrant community knows that not everybody is using that discriminatory tone and there’s nothing to fear.”
Kamal Essaheb, director of policy and advocacy for the National Immigrant Law Center, said recently on a press call organized by New America Media and Ready California that there’s no doubt the country is entering a challenging period. He described the 2016 U.S. presidential election as divisive in ways that even affected how people relate to their community members. The national press call was held to assess what the election results mean for immigrant communities in the United States.
“President-elect Trump has called for unity, especially in his election night speech, but obviously his actions are going to have to speak much louder than early Wednesday morning’s words. We just don’t know specifically what he will do on immigration and on other issues,” Essaheb said. “As folks know, he’s thrown out a lot of ideas and it’s not clear that many of them are either practically feasible or politically feasible, and it’s not clear that, even within those ideas that are feasible, which ones he’ll prioritize. There are some Republicans who are already out there saying, ‘No, no, no, when he talks about immigrants, he’s not talking about going door-to-door to pick people up.’ But he needs to say that, because obviously there is a lot of anxiety in certain communities.”
A different upbringing
When she first arrived in the United States, Luna knew she wanted to provide her children with an upbringing much different than hers. The single mother is now raising them in a light blue mobile home with brown trim. Just outside the front door is a storage organizer, and toys and books fill the colored bins.
On a recent afternoon, the Luna children played outside on the narrow gravel road. Oscar, 5, rode around on a pink and purple bicycle. His sisters ran with other girls from the neighborhood, their laughter filling the space between homes.
Luna sat in the living room with baby Elisha in her arms. Light streamed into the room from the open door as she kept a watchful eye on her children.
“I understand I broke the law. I understand that there are rules one must follow, but sometimes the need is so great that you can’t respect them because you’re forced to find a better way to protect yourself, to find a way to a place where you feel you can leave the misery in which you were raised, in which you were born,” she said as tears streamed down her face. “Many times, people judge and think that because three or four people have caused harm, all of us do the same. It’s not like that.”
Many like Luna, she said, are here because they had no other options.
Luna’s 6-year-old daughter, Aizmar, has been on high alert since Election Day. Aizmar said she is scared that Luna is returning to Mexico, “where she really came from.” In Spanish, Luna pressed her daughter gently on why she was afraid. Aizmar wouldn’t say at first. The little girl’s shoulders slumped, her small frame drowning in the couch as she looked up at her mother.
“Because I love you a lot,” she responded timidly in Spanish.
Luna pulled her daughter in for an embrace. Aizmar’s cries were silent. “I love you, too,” she told Aizmar.
Another Bradenton child, 12-year-old Eduardo — whose last name has been withheld at the request of his parents — said he had wondered for some time if his Mexican-born mother, Mireya, is undocumented.
“She recently confirmed my thoughts about a couple of months ago,” he said.
Eduardo said he’s thought about his mother eventually being deported. The only thing that can be done now, he said, is accept the fact that Trump is becoming the president of the United States.
“If my mom does get deported, well, obviously I’m going to have to go with her, you know, because I want to stay with my family but, of course, to sacrifice everything that I have here …” he said, his voice trailing off. “Mainly my friends, pretty much my entire social life here, and just living in a country where it’s something that’s going to be a lot different than what it is here.”
Mireya, who crossed the border illegally in 2001, said it was difficult to continue as normal the day after Trump was elected.
“To go out into the street and pretend that everything is the same as usual, that nothing will change, has been very difficult,” she said in Spanish.
Mireya said she knows she and other parents are responsible for the situation their children are in.
“I know this is not my country, even though I love it deeply. It’s not, and I’m conscious of that, that it’s not my country,” she said, “that we’re foreigners, that we cannot demand anything as citizens because we’re not citizens. I’m conscious of that situation. … When parents decide to come here, the majority of us come looking for a life that is different and, when we find it here, we stay.”
She is bracing herself for the possible return to Mexico.
“But it’s also a change, a very important decision, because my children were raised here,” the 42-year-old said. “My son was born here. For him, this country is his country. For him, this is his world and what he knows.”
Living with fear
On Monday evening, the Luna children were all restless. Elisha, 1, crawled under two tables in the living room, her wild curls framing her small face. Aisha, 2, nestled up against her mother, who placed a crown on the toddler’s head. “You look beautiful,” the mother crooned at Aisha in Spanish. Oscar wanted attention, too.
Madian and Aizmar were in their bedroom watching Nickelodeon, their faces aglow in the light from a small television. The room’s white door and some of the green walls were covered in marker scrawls. The girls all of a sudden remembered it was Monday, which meant they would later be picked up by members of Ministerios Puerta Abierta (in English, Open Door Ministries), a local Latino Christian church. Madian, Aizmar and their brother Oscar are regulars who attend a weekly worship class for children.
The two sisters jumped from the bed and began looking through their dresser in excitement. “I’m going to go tell Ma if we can put it on,” Madian said as she pulled an Elsa costume from Disney’s “Frozen” out of a drawer. “We can wear whatever we want.”
Aizmar pulled out a pink and purple dress, a costume from “Sofia The First,” also from Disney. She studied herself in the mirror with a bright smile.
Luna tries to teach her children that if they’re going to say something to someone else, it should be constructive. At their worship class in Ministerios Puerta Abierta, she said her children often hear the same lessons she’s taught them at home.
“I live with this fear that I won’t be with them all the time, because I know being here, in the situation that I’m in, is to be here one day and another day you’re not sure if you’ll wake up here,” the mother said. “More than anything, that dread I have is the foundation that fuels me to try to tell my children, ‘You have to be positive. You have to learn to be kind to others.’”
If she has to, Luna said she’ll return to Mexico with her children.
“I can’t imagine ending up in a jail cell awaiting deportation and my children in the hands of a stranger. I want to wait but upon the first changes, I’m leaving. I don’t have another way out,” she said. “If I didn’t have children, perhaps I wouldn’t worry so much. But when you’re a mother or a father, you think about the well-being of your children above your own.”