Broken Border

"We need to be prepared": The tough conversations immigrant families are having as deportation fears consume Houston communities

Although the president delayed an Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation targeting families with deportation orders, anxiety remains among the undocumented community of Houston.

Volunteers with the Workers Defense Project handed out know-your-rights flyers at the River Park Soccer League in Houston on Sunday.
Volunteers with the Workers Defense Project handed out know-your-rights flyers at the River Park Soccer League in Houston on Sunday.  Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
Broken Border

A surge of migrants arriving at the Texas-Mexico border has pushed the country's immigration system to the breaking point as new policies aimed at both undocumented immigrants and legal asylum seekers have contributed to a humanitarian crisis. The Texas Tribune is maintaining its in-depth reporting on this national issue.

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*Correction appended.

HOUSTON — On Friday afternoon, Kassandra saw the news on social media. Her immediate reaction was to call her father.

“I told him to be careful out there," she said.

They were talking about what has been called the “family op”, according to The Washington Post: an Immigration and Customs Enforcement plan to conduct a mass roundup of migrant families that have received deportation orders. Federal agents originally planned to target at least 10 cities, including Houston, where Kassandra lives.

“When dad arrived home from work, the four of us sat down, saw the news show, and we made plans," said the 19-year-old immigrant, who asked that her full name not be used.

Her Mexican mom has a resident visa, and Kassandra and her 12-year-old sister are U.S.-born citizens. But her dad is undocumented, originally from El Salvador. Kassandra and her father are the breadwinners in the household. Kassandra is a student and a cashier at a dollar store. Her father works in construction.

“Sitting there, we started making the math, figuring out our savings, how we would pay the bills. We tried to have everything ready, to have the contact information of the immigration lawyer,” Kassandra says.

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President Donald Trump said Saturday he was halting the plan for two weeks to give Democratic and Republican lawmakers a chance to close what he called loopholes in the nations' border and asylum processes. But if that doesn't happen, he warned, the deportations will commence.

In Houston, a city of 1.6 million immigrants and about half a million undocumented people, the announcement was a double blow for people like Kassandra. Not only they were worried about the fact that Houston was named as one of the targets, but also they were concerned because the announcement referred to families, not just individuals.

“After listening to that word, the next word that I thought of is separation,” Kassandra recalled.

The memory of last year's zero-tolerance policy along the border, which separated hundreds of migrant children from their parents, remains fresh among immigrant communities. And although Trump said he was postponing this weekend's planned deportation operation, angst remains for many.

“People are afraid. I received so many text messages this weekend,” said Damaris González, a community organizer with United We Dream. “You walk around the streets and people are talking about this. Many of them don’t know their rights, what to do if immigration stops them, how to answer.”

On social media and at community events, immigrant advocates like González have been publicizing what to do if ICE shows up at someone's home or workplace.

Another recommendation, sometimes more difficult to put in place, is to do what Kassandra did: be prepared for the worst-case scenario and have a talk with your family, including planning to have a legal guardian in case both parents are detained.

"Some families are having those conversations,” said Laura Perez-Boston, the Houston campaign manager for labor rights organization Workers Defense Project.

Laura Perez-Boston at the offices of the Workers Defense Project on Saturday.
Laura Perez-Boston at the offices of the Workers Defense Project on Saturday.  Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

She recommend families know whom to call and which house to go to for help if family members are detained.

“But I've also heard from some parents that would prefer not to have those conversations with those kids because it puts so much fear on them that they can't live a normal childhood," Perez-Boston said. "It is a hard decision that the parents are having to make.”

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"She will know what to do"

At a two-story home in northwest Houston, Indira Márquez-Robles’ family tries to go on with life, but it is difficult.

“We are trying to keep living in a normal way, but we have to be very aware of everything,” Márquez-Robles said.

She is a 19-year-old beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gives undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors protections including renewable two-year work permits and a reprieve from deportations. She’s the oldest of seven kids and the only family member, besides her parents, who is undocumented. Her father is currently detained by ICE in Georgia.

She talked about the family's strategies for responding to possible deportations as she stood clad in a red T-shirt with the words "i shouldn't have to show papers to prove i exist" emblazoned on the front.

“My mom is the person in charge. Yesterday, we had conversations about these things," Márquez-Robles said. "Maybe if we should leave the house or not, but we haven’t talked about guardianship. I guess we haven’t had time to talk about the worst-case scenarios."

Indira Márquez-Robles, 19, is a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and resides in Houston.
Indira Márquez-Robles, 19, is a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and resides in Houston.  Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Leticia Quintanilla is undocumented and resides in Houston. Quintanilla states that she’s been more cautious about traveling since the recent threat of immigration raids in Houston. June 23, 2019.
Leticia Quintanilla is undocumented and resides in Houston. Quintanilla states that she’s been more cautious about traveling since the recent threat of immigration raids in Houston. June 23, 2019.

Left: Leticia Quintanilla is an undocumented immigrant who resides in Houston. She's been more cautious about traveling since the recent threat of immigration raids in Houston. Left: Quintanilla in her home in Houston on Sunday. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Her mother, Leticia Quintanilla, said they haven't designated their oldest child as the legal guardian of her other siblings. But Quintanilla trusts things will be OK.

“Yesterday, with the news, we were talking about all of this and thinking. I had things to do, but I decided to stay at home. And I’m always thinking if it will actually happen,” Quintanilla said. “I did give her access to the bank accounts; she knows who to call and her siblings know that she is in charge. She’ll know what to do. God, I hope it doesn’t happen, but she will know what to do.”

Pragmatism and preparation

But for some in the undocumented community, figuring out a legal guardian for underaged children in the family can be more pressing.

Camila is a 25-year-old undocumented immigrant from Colombia who also asked that her full name not be used. The only person in her family who is a U.S. citizen is her 10-year-old sister, who has Down syndrome. Camila's mother figured out guardianship of her younger sister as soon as Trump took office.

“My mom went to a lawyer and signed a document leaving my grandmother in charge of my sister,” she said.

Camila is an undocumented immigrant that who in Houston. Fearing deportation, her mother signed paperwork when President Donald Trump was elected so that Camila's 10-year-old sister, who is a U.S. citizen, has a legal guardian.
Camila is an undocumented immigrant that who in Houston. Fearing deportation, her mother signed paperwork when President Donald Trump was elected so that Camila's 10-year-old sister, who is a U.S. citizen, has a legal guardian.  Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Camila said her family doesn't want to take chances with her sister's wellbeing.

“My mother was very proactive. And I think we need to be pragmatic, especially given the current situation in the country,” Camila said. “We need to be prepared. We’ve already heard of many cases where the kids stay alone here and in charge of the government. We don’t want that for us.”

Correction: A previous version of this story included incorrect information about Kassandra's immigration status. She is a U.S. citizen.