Undocumented immigrants across America are emerging from the shadows
Some risk deportation by joining street protests and speaking at news conferences
Brenda Lira, 21, wondered whether her closest friends would turn their backs on her.
It was awkward revealing the truth to them, she said. Filled with embarrassment and shame, Lira confessed this week to being an undocumented immigrant.
“I basically told them my whole story,” said Lira, a Tennessee resident who crossed the border from Mexico illegally with her parents when she was 2 years old.
“My biggest fear was (my friends) not wanting to know me anymore but they’re very supportive. They love me and I love them back.”
Across America, some of the country’s more than 11 million undocumented immigrants are emerging from the shadows. They’re declaring their legal status to friends and coworkers. They’re joining a struggle for immigrant rights, educating others like them and risking arrest and deportation by joining streets protests and speaking at news conferences.
Some have strong words for those who see them as criminals worthy of immediate deportation. They were insulted when Donald Trump called some Mexican immigrants “rapists” as he launched his presidential campaign at Trump Tower in New York. They want Americans to view them as neighbors who harbor dreams not far removed from other generations of newcomers to the United States.
“I’ve been living in fear, not only for myself but for my family, for people that I know,” Lira said.
“Fear that my parents will be ripped away from me. That I’ll be ripped away from them. That I’ll be ripped away from the land that I called home for the last 19 years.”
’I am the definition of being American’
Since his inauguration in January, President Trump’s immigration crackdown has sent waves of uncertainty through immigrant communities. But some undocumented immigrants have been emboldened to join efforts seeking an overhaul of the immigration system.
“I think it’s time for us to be united, to present a strong front, to actually fight for what we want,” Lira said.
Fueling the fear and anger is the fact that the Trump administration’s new enforcement priorities could be applied to virtually every undocumented immigrant in the United States – whereas the Obama administration had focused on serious and violent criminals.
While the new administration has said criminals are a priority, Trump has expanded enforcement powers to potentially deport undocumented immigrants who have lived in their communities for years – and may have family members who are legal US residents or citizens.
Increased action by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents last month netted nearly 700 arrests nationwide, amplifying anxiety in longtime immigrant enclaves. Earlier this month, immigration agents detained Daniela Vargas, 22, after she publicly criticized the recent spate of federal raids during a news conference in Jackson, Mississippi. She told the story of her father and brother, who were arrested by ICE agents in February.
Vargas also advocated for young people such as herself who were brought to the US as children by their undocumented parents, then qualified for a temporary reprieve from deportation under DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Attorneys for Vargas – whose DACA status expired in November – have filed a petition in federal court asking for her immediate release.
DACA participants are often called DREAMers, a reference to the DREAM Act. They have a right to work and seek education in the US. The Trump administration left DACA intact.
The DACA protections set up a procedure for verifying the roughly 750,000 participants in the program, including background checks. In exchange, the recipients receive permits to work and seek education in the US, though they do not receive citizenship or legal status.
Lira is nervous about the future despite qualifying for a temporary reprieve from deportation under DACA, she said. Her parents are undocumented.
“I think I am the definition of being American,” she said.
“I’m an immigrant. I work for everything I want. I pay my taxes. A lot of us pay our taxes. We find our way to not do anything illegal. We try to follow all the laws except of course coming to this country illegally.”
’This is my country, too’
In New Orleans, Louisiana, Jose Lara was facing deportation when he received an unexpected stay after a recent appearance before US immigration authorities. The decision to show up was a difficult one, he said. Other immigrants have been detained and deported after appearing for what they believed were routine meetings with authorities.
Lara and his wife took a risk agreeing to an on-camera interview with CNN. They’re tired of living in fear, they said. They’re both undocumented; their toddler was born in the US.
In two months, Lara must report back to ICE. He previously spent nine months in immigration detention after being picked up during what he said was a traffic stop.
Asked if he had a message for Trump, Lara was quickly cut off by his wife.
“What would he do if he was in our situation?” Valeria Zamora, holding their sleeping toddler in her arms, said of the President. “We cant take the crime in our countries. What would he do if they wanted to deport him and separate him from his family?”
Zamora, who is undocumented and has spent five years in the US, said she would remind Trump of the long days she spent last year clearing out moldy, water-logged homes after massive flooding in Baton Rouge.
“This is my country, too,” Zamora, her voice rising, said she would tell Trump.
“This is my country from the moment I stepped foot here. I have helped rebuild it and lift it up day in and day out … I am more from here than you. I work hard in this country while you sleep in your golden cradle. We struggle every day. I would tell him to his face.”
Lara and Zamora said they came to the US illegally from Honduras five years ago.
“Our communities need to come together more than ever,” Lara said. “This is only the beginning. We have to … keep fighting.”
’Time for us to stop fearing’
Outside Atlanta, Georgia, Jonathan Ramirez, 22, said Trump’s hardline on immigration has given undocumented immigrants like himself a reason to stand up.
A former produce store worker, Ramirez was 7 years old when he was brought to the US from Mexico’s capital by his undocumented parents. He has never been back.
Ramirez said he has been talking to other undocumented immigrants about their rights. He has quit his job and become a full-time activist, frequently appearing at rallies in support of the undocumented. He has a pending court date for driving without a license and doesn’t know if he’ll be handed over to ICE.
“He’s coming against us, but the people, the community, they’re becoming more united in a way to come towards a plan to fight the deportations,” he said of Trump.
In Tennessee, Lira recalled that when she was a child some friends worried about being lured into vans by kidnappers. But she was cautious for a different reason.
“I feared white vans because it was ICE,” she said. “They’re going to take me away from my family.”
Lira hopes to mobilize other undocumented immigrants and their children, and try to persuade those who support Trump’s tough stance. Her US-born friends have offered their support.
“It’s time for us to come out of the shadows,” she said. “It’s time for us to stop fearing.”
CNN’s Nick Valencia, Jaide Timm-Garcia and Ray Sanchez reported this story, and Sanchez wrote in New York.