Undocumented immigrants on Maui are unsure of future

Given the changing policies, some worry they’ll get caught up in deportation fervor

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are seen outside a home in Atlanta during a targeted enforcement operation aimed at immigration fugitives, re-entrants and at-large criminal aliens on Feb. 9. The Homeland Security Department said on Feb. 13 that 680 people were arrested in roundups the previous week targeting immigrants living illegally in the United States. While the department said that 75 percent of those detained had prior criminal convictions, undocumented immigrants on Maui and across the country who don’t have criminal convictions fear they’ll be caught up in the renewed crackdown.  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement BRYAN COX photo via AP

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are seen outside a home in Atlanta during a targeted enforcement operation aimed at immigration fugitives, re-entrants and at-large criminal aliens on Feb. 9. The Homeland Security Department said on Feb. 13 that 680 people were arrested in roundups the previous week targeting immigrants living illegally in the United States. While the department said that 75 percent of those detained had prior criminal convictions, undocumented immigrants on Maui and across the country who don’t have criminal convictions fear they’ll be caught up in the renewed crackdown. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement BRYAN COX photo via AP

As a junior at Maui High School, Liz won a scholarship that would cover the first two years of college. She was interested in the medical field and was thrilled. Liz went to ask her parents for her identification papers — that’s when she found out she was an undocumented immigrant.

The scholarship “was a really amazing opportunity because my parents worked hard but didn’t have a lot of money,” said Liz, who asked that her last name be withheld. “Little did I know I wouldn’t be able to go to school because I didn’t have a little paper that said Social Security.”

Liz, now 28, is not a U.S. citizen but can work legally in the country thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. But with the growing tensions over immigration and recent executive orders cracking down on more than just the most serious criminals, she’s not sure what to expect.

“I’m scared, but I always try to keep a positive mentality,” she said.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump spoke frequently of his plans to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and to deport the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally. Some saw it as a way to improve national security; others believed it would tear families apart.

Recently, though, the newly elected President Trump has expressed interest in a bill that could allow those who aren’t serious or violent criminals to stay and work without fear of deportation. But given a series of high-profile raids and the president’s past stances, many like Liz worry they’ll be caught up in a deportation fervor.

Hawaii’s undocumented immigrants

While Mexicans made up about 52 percent of all illegal immigrants in the U.S. in 2014, Asians have been the nation’s fastest growing illegal immigrant group since 2000, the Migration Policy Institute reported.

Asian immigrants have long been a part of Hawaii’s fabric, and the same holds true for the state’s undocumented population. About half are from the Philippines, and more than 80 percent of all undocumented immigrants in Hawaii come from Asia, according to the institute. In total, the state has about 45,000 undocumented immigrants, according to 2014 estimates by the Pew Research Center.

The nationwide number is around 11 million, a figure that has held steady since 2009 and accounts for 3.5 percent of the country’s population, according to the center.

When Liz was 6 months old, her mom brought her to the U.S., hoping to find the job opportunities she couldn’t get in Mexico

“She felt she had no liberty to do anything,” Liz said. “She wanted to come out here to provide me with a better life.”

Liz’s mother married a Mexico-born man who came to the U.S. at the age of 17. They worked hard to support Liz and her younger brother, a U.S.-born American citizen. Liz’s father cooked in a high-end Italian restaurant, and her mother worked at different factories over the years, making T-shirt labels, checking fruits and adjusting designer-brand dresses for clients.

Worried about gangs and looking for new job opportunities, the family moved to Maui in 2002. Liz was two weeks away from finishing the 7th grade. Her brother was 5 years old.

“I was depressed when I had to come to Maui,” Liz said. “In my preteen mentality it was a very difficult time.”

Liz went on to attend Maui High School and started taking classes related to the medical field. She had hopes of becoming a nurse, possibly a midwife and, in her junior year, she won a scholarship that would put her on the path to a higher education. But when she broke the news to her parents, her mom “had to give me that talk” about Liz’s status.

“I had to reject that scholarship,” Liz said. “My teacher gave me a scolding because she didn’t know what I had just discovered, and I felt embarrassed to tell her about it. . . . She said, ‘Liz, I’m so glad you got it. Why are you rejecting it? Do you know how many people fight to get a scholarship?'”

Through tears, Liz told her teacher why she’d turned down the offer. Her teacher “felt terrible” and tried to research ways to help Liz continue her education. But Liz couldn’t apply for most opportunities, and paying the international student rate for college was out of the question.

So, after graduating in 2007, Liz spent her days babysitting and her evenings doing cleaning jobs. In 2012, then-President Barack Obama signed DACA, allowing undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to work legally, though without the option of citizenship. Program beneficiaries were nicknamed “DREAMers.”

Liz applied and got a Social Security number, a driver’s license and a work permit. Her first official job was as a case worker for Maui Economic Opportunity Inc.

“Going from nothing to working there, I think that I was really lucky and really blessed, because I had all positive people around me supporting me,” she said. “When DACA came out . . . it was a life changer.”

Liz worked with victims of domestic violence, served as an interpreter at doctor’s appointments and helped families translate documents. When MEO’s funding was cut, she found a job as a legal assistant for local immigration lawyer Kevin Block.

Despite the current political climate, Liz is an optimist. She has a good job and feels blessed. Meanwhile, her brother is a barista and is considering opening his own coffee shop.

“I think I was a little bit more worried as soon as (Trump) came in the White House because I feel it would’ve been so easy for him to sign the executive order and finish DACA,” Liz said. “The fact that he hasn’t makes me feel a little bit hopeful that maybe he has some kind of plan. Or, if not a plan, he’s just going to let us remain with that same status. And I’m OK with that.”

Liz hopes opportunities for immigrants such as DACA won’t disappear.

“How are you going to give us the opportunity to be something in this community and take it away from us?”

Road to citizenship

Block has always had a busy law practice. But recently he’s “been getting a huge influx of phone calls” from concerned clients.

“A lot of the folks that I deal with, under the old administration, they weren’t enforcement priorities,” said Block, a former director of Maui County Immigrant Services. “But policies . . . have broadened the scope of who can be deportable to basically anyone who’s here. The reason that causes concern is because there is no longer a hierarchy in the type of crime.”

Trump’s order on “Enhancing Public Security in the Interior” still targets serious criminals but expands the focus to anyone who’s been charged with a crime, regardless if they’re convicted or not.

Several of Trump’s actions within his first month in office have centered on border security and immigration, major tenets of his campaign. Executive orders have sought to put a hold on new visas and refugee entries, blocked travel from seven African and Middle Eastern countries and opened the door for construction of the wall along the Mexican border.

Hawaii’s congressional delegates have roundly criticized Trump. When he signed the order aimed to allow construction of the wall and bulk up enforcement of immigration laws, Sen. Mazie Hirono said that Trump’s action “exploits fear of refugees and immigrants.” When he temporarily barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries to enter the U.S., Sen. Brian Schatz called on the U.S. Senate “to stand against this ban and fight chaos and paranoia as official government policy.”

“Comprehensive immigration reform includes securing our borders, but building a wall is not the solution,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said. “Furthermore, it will drain us of the resources we need for things like education and infrastructure.”

But Jack James, executive director of the Hawaii Republican Party, said, “The president is protecting our borders.

“If you’re not here legally, you’re subject to being deported,” James said. “We have to abide by the law; they should have to abide by the law. There are so many wonderful people who immigrate to this country and do it properly. For us to allow anything less than that is disrespectful to those people.”

To become a U.S. citizen, a person must hold a green card for five years. In order to get a green card, either an employer or a family member must petition the government on behalf of the potential citizen, Block explained. A person can also come for humanitarian reasons, such as those under threat from a natural disaster or hostile political climate.

But Block believes there need to be more paths to U.S. citizenship. He thinks a good option for undocumented immigrants who haven’t committed criminal acts would be to charge them a fine and give them a shot at becoming legal.

“I’m sure that if we gave them the chance to make amends for their one illegal act of crossing the border, they would happily do that by paying a fine,” Block said.

Block is fine with improved border security, “as long as we deal with the folks that are already here. It’s hugely disruptive to tell people, ‘Please take all your (belongings), take all your kids that were born here and go to some country you haven’t lived in for 20 years.'”

On this, James agrees. He favors deporting individuals with criminal records, especially those who return repeatedly to commit crimes, but believes in judging others on a case-by-case basis.

“There does need to be compassion when there’s children involved,” he said. “There may be a segment of this population that’s been here so long, we do need to address them differently. . . . Someone who’s been here 15, 20 years, contributing, doing everything that everyone else has. We still want him or her to become a U.S. citizen.”

A spokesperson with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Wednesday that ICE was “not currently able to accommodate interviews” related to executive orders on immigration.

Image of an immigrant

Since Valdir Solera Jr. was granted a special visa as a victim of human trafficking, he’s been working to educate fellow refugees and immigrants. He tries to connect them with resources, encourages them not to overstay their visas and, in the meantime, tries to debunk stereotypes within the general public.

“These people are our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends, and most of the time we don’t even know they’re undocumented,” said Solera, who was chosen as Hawaii’s delegate to the 2016 Refugee Congress in Washington, D.C.

In the U.S., more than 60 percent of undocumented immigrants have lived in the country for more than a decade, according to a report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Many are mixed-legal status families. They pay an estimated $11.74 billion a year in taxes and contribute to Social Security but never take out those benefits because legally they can’t, Block said.

While Trump has put a spotlight on immigrant crimes, multiple organizations — from universities to immigration policy centers to police research groups — have shown that legal and illegal immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native-born population.

“All we want to do is live and work in peace,” Liz said. “My purpose to being here and becoming successful is because I want to show my parents that every struggle they went through when I was a kid, I want them to see that blossom into something even more beautiful.”

One man who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his status knows he’s on Maui illegally, but feels he can’t go back now. The money he makes supports his family in Mexico. It sends his oldest son to college and pays the medical bills for his youngest daughter’s respiratory problems — expenses he can’t afford working there.

“I miss my kids, but I don’t think I can go back,” he said through a translator.

In 2015, family members invited him to Maui to work and stay with them. After the job fizzled out, he didn’t have enough money to return.

For four months, he lived in his van. He struggled to get good clothes and dress well so he could hold a decent job. Finally, he was able to get an apartment and pay his rent by cleaning restaurant kitchens. All of his money goes to rent, food and his four kids and wife in Mexico.

“I’ve always wanted, in some way, to legalize my status,” he said.

But he didn’t know how, and under current conditions, he’s not sure he can.

The man has always lived with the fear that someone will come to his apartment and take him away one day. Recently, he had to go to court for an expired vehicle registration, not realizing it was something he had to renew. At that time, the judge was more concerned with fining him for his infraction than with his immigration status. Now, he’s concerned that single traffic ticket could send him home.

He understands Trump “wants to protect the country” but also worries that new policies will affect people who’ve tried to abide by the law since coming illegally.

“I think we all deserve a chance . . . to fix our situation,” he said.

Solera encouraged immigrants to seek out information, whether at the county’s Immigrant Services offices in Wailuku and Lahaina and on Molokai and Lanai or by reading the state handbook for newcomers at labor.hawaii.gov/ocs/immigrantshandbook. He added that if a person is detained or approached by Homeland Security agents, they, like anyone, have the right to remain silent and are entitled to a free lawyer and interpreter.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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