Cindy lives with her three children in a small bedroom in an apartment near a major American city. Two other adults also live in the apartment.
Cindy asked VOA to use just her first name for this story. She is not in the United States legally. She was born in Guatemala and brought to the United States when she was five years old.
So, Cindy considers the U.S. home.
“Even though I don’t have papers, I feel that I’m from here. Of course, I’m proud of having been born in Guatemala, but I wasn’t raised there. I don’t know the culture over there. I don’t know what it’s like to live there.”
She has worked since she was 17, holding different jobs. She is now 29 and pregnant. Cindy says she wants to stay in the United States so she and her family can have a good life. Her children were born in the United States, so they are citizens. Cindy says she is more scared than she has ever been of being deported to Guatemala. She says she wants to become a legal resident of the United States.
Cindy is among an estimated 11 million people living in the United States without government permission. Experts say more than half of them are from Mexico and other Latin American countries.
Last week, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, carried out raids around the country. They arrested 680 people. The agency said it was targeting people who had been found guilty of crimes while in the United States. ICE said the raids were no different than those that took place during the Obama administration.
In a statement this week, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said “President Trump has been clear in affirming the critical mission of DHS in protecting the nation, and directed our department to focus on removing illegal aliens who have violated our immigration laws.”
Trump promised often during the campaign to stop illegal immigration. He said if he became president he would deport up to three million people involved in criminal activity. On January 25th, he signed a presidential order that expanded the powers of ICE to detain immigrants.
On Sunday, Trump wrote a message on the social networking site Twitter. He said “The crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise. Gang members, drug dealers (and) others are being removed!”
His message seemed to differ from what ICE said about its actions: that they were usual -- no different from what the agency did when Barack Obama was president.
The Department of Homeland Security said 25 percent of those arrested last week had not been found guilty of criminal acts in the United States but were in the country illegally. It said their cases will be examined individually. It said they may be deported even if they are not criminals.
Angelica Satas is the executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. She said she has been watching the operations of ICE for 30 years. She said last week’s raids were “not normal.” She said many more people called her organization than usual while a raid was taking place in Los Angeles. She said some people were being seized in their homes and as they traveled to their jobs.
Many immigrants are afraid. There are reports that ICE will be setting up checkpoint stations to stop and seize immigrants who entered the United States without permission.
Many people from Latin America live in the Columbia Heights area of Washington, DC. VOA spoke with some of them as they waited at a Catholic Charities center for free food. They said they feared being deported.
Rodrigo Aguirre works at Catholic Charities. He says he has noticed a difference from a year ago.
"We're seeing people just become a little bit more afraid about asking for help. Because they are fearful of the consequences -- fearful that their name might be given to immigration and then eventually deported."
VOA spoke to a Salvadoran woman named Hemelina while she was waiting for free food from the center. She said she came to the United States illegally last year. She said she fled El Salvador because her husband often hit her and she feared gangs -- groups of criminals.
Smita Dazzo is an immigration lawyer for Catholic Charities. She says Hemelina could be given asylum if she can show a judge proof that she would be harmed if she is returned to El Salvador. Dazzo says most of the immigrants she talks to have what the law calls a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country.
“The majority of people that are coming here really are fleeing for their lives. It's, it's really, really scary for these people and some of them really honestly feel like they have no choice."
Dazzo says Trump’s election has caused many people in the U.S. illegally to begin the process of getting permission to stay.
But supporters of Trump’s immigration policy say limits are required because there are so many people who want to come to, or stay in, the U.S.
Dan Stein is among these voices. He heads the Federation for American Immigration Reform. He says that in the past 40 years the United States has had the highest level of immigration in its history. He says that cannot continue.
"All countries have to deal in the real world. And there are simply far more people who would like to move to a country like the United States than we can possibly handle and still provide a good quality of life and a shot at the American dream for people who are here today.”
It is not clear what will happen to the millions of people in the United States illegally who have not done a crime while they are here. They have families and jobs. Immigration activists say the solution is a law that lets them stay.
Dazzo says “there are a lot of people who come here as children that are really upstanding citizens. They work hard, they’re family oriented. They’re exactly what you hope that Americans are.”
I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.
Words in This Story
papers – expression immigration documents that show a person has permission to be in a country
deport – v. to force (a person who is not a citizen) to leave a country
resident – n. someone who lives in a particular place
affirm – v. to show a strong belief in or dedication to (something, such as an important idea)
critical – adj. extremely important
mission – n. a task or job that someone is given to do
focus – v. to direct your attention or effort at something specific (often + on)
crackdown – n. a serious attempt to punish people for doing something that is not allowed; an increased effort to enforce a law or rule
merely – adv. used to describe the only reason for something or the only effect of something
gang – n. a group of criminals
persecute – v. to treat (someone) cruelly or unfairly especially because of race or religious or political beliefs
handle – v. to do the work required for something; to deal with (a person, situation, etc.) successfully
upstanding – adj. honest and respectable
oriented – adj. designed to appeal to a certain kind of people; interested in a particular thing, activity, etc.