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News / Nation & World

As Trump threatens deportations, Miami’s undocumented grapple with uncertain future

By Syra Ortiz Blanes and Max Greenwood, Miami Herald
Published: June 7, 2024, 8:50am

The daughters of Bertha Sanles know no home beyond the United States. The youngest was born in Miami. The eldest doesn’t remember the Nicaragua she left behind when she was 10 years old.

But her U.S. citizen children are weighing whether to leave the country with their mother and abandon their American futures should Donald Trump win the presidency and launch the biggest deportation campaign the country has ever seen.

“We had to come to the conclusion and the decision that if things get ugly here, they would be willing to go to Nicaragua,” said Sanles, who has been undocumented in the U.S. for over two decades.

Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has said that undocumented immigrants “are poisoning the blood of our country,” and pledged to deport the millions of people in the U.S. who lack legal status. A recent government report estimated there were roughly 11 million of them in the country, 80% of them here for 10 years or longer.

Any mass deportation operation would likely be weighed down by underfunded and understaffed government agencies, lengthy court battles and baffling logistics. But the former president’s promises have scared immigrants and their advocates, who fear a new Trump administration would tear apart mixed-status families and disrupt the livelihoods and lives of entire communities.

It’s that tension that is potentially pulling Sanles’ family back to Nicaragua. She left for the U.S. in March 2000, after Hurricane Mitch killed thousands in Central America and devastated the region. Since moving to South Florida, Sanles has cleaned homes as a housekeeper, taken care of the elderly as a home health aide, advocated for immigrants’ rights and paid taxes to the federal government.

She’s raised two daughters who, by measure of the traditional American Dream, are successful: a 19-year-old university student who dreams of becoming a dentist, and a 30 year old teacher.

“I try to do everything correctly and avoid trouble. I try to contribute everything I can. Because I consider that this is my home,” Sanles said.

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Concerns are widespread, extending to immigrants who were brought here as children, or whose presence in the United States is protected under programs like Temporary Protected Status, a humanitarian relief that offers deportation protections and work permits to people from nations in turmoil.

The Trump campaign did not respond to questions from the Miami Herald about whether his mass deportation policies would provide exceptions or special considerations for undocumented people who have been living in the country for a long time and for mixed-status families (households including members with differing immigration statuses).

Limiting pathways

With polls showing that voters of all persuasions are generally concerned about immigration, even President Joe Biden is moving to curb the number of people coming into the U.S. His administration announced Tuesday that it would limit the number of people able to claim asylum on any given day

But experts expect Trump to go further to try and limit existing migrant pathways in a system that is widely viewed as broken. His past administration made people wait for their U.S. asylum hearings in Mexico and tried to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program known as DACA that currently grants immigration relief to over half a million people who came to the U.S. as children.

“If Trump were to be elected, his central premise would be, ‘Let me throw as much sand as possible into the machinery that brings legal immigrants to this country, whether for family reasons, employment reasons, or humanitarian reasons,’” said Angela Kelley, a senior advisor for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, during a press conference in May.

A second Trump administration could also roll back new, Biden-era programs, such as the humanitarian parole program for Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti and Nicaragua, which has allowed roughly 439,000 people from the four countries to legally come to the United States for two years. Over a dozen Republican-led states, including Florida, sued the federal government to end the program, though a federal judge in Texas allowed it to continue in March.

Stan Veuger, a senior fellow in economic policy at the center-right think tank American Enterprise Institute, said that a new Trump administration “would think of a larger group as undocumented. I would imagine they would count people who are here under DACA or TPS or humanitarian parole.”

That’s scary for people like Maria Elena Hernández, 65, who came to the United States from Nicaragua in 1996. Hernández has been a recipient of TPS for over two decades. Now, she worries that if Trump wins the presidency, he could move to end TPS for Nicaragua, Haiti and other countries again, like he tried to do in his last round in the White House.

“We as immigrants are a very important part of this country. We enrich our communities with our culture, traditions and economic contributions. We have raised our families and have started small businesses here,” she said.

The stress of the unknown can be particularly pronounced for mixed-status families like Sanles’, which are commonplace in Florida.

The federal government reported in April that the state was home to about 590,000 undocumented people in 2022, though another estimate from the Pew Research Center has estimated that number to be closer to 900,000. Over 280,000 children with U.S. citizenship in Florida live with at least one undocumented family member, according to the American Immigration Council.

“Can you imagine the cruel and sad consequences if he deports all the undocumented people who are married here to American citizens? It’s the separation of hundreds of thousands of children and parents,” said Al Cardenas, the co-chairman of the American Business Immigration Coalition and former Florida GOP Chairman.

To stay or to go?

With a possible Trump victory looming over the horizon, María de Jesús Pantoja Chacon is thinking about home.

The 69-year old housekeeper moved to the U.S. from Nicaragua in 2001. She lives in Miami with one of her siblings, who are U.S. citizens. But she couldn’t go back to Nicaragua to bury her parents. She’s missed her children’s weddings and met most of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren over the phone.

A since-disbarred lawyer stole thousands and blew up her and her husband’s immigration case, she said. Her spouse was deported in 2008. Chacon and her children have cried every Christmas morning on separate sides of the Gulf of Mexico. They ask her why she’s stuck with this lonely, undocumented life for so long.

It’s hope that has kept her afloat. The dollars she earns stretch farther in Managua than they ever could in Miami. She paid for her children’s living costs while they were in college. Two became lawyers. The others work as a customs officer and a business administrator in Nicaragua.

“I wanted them to be someone in life. They promised me they would. And thank God, because the sacrifice paid off even if I’m now here in limbo,” she said.

And if she stayed long enough, her case would be solved. Perhaps politicians’ promises of immigration reform would come alive and offer pathways to legalization to people like her. Perhaps, she’d even reunite with her husband, children and grandchildren in South Florida.

Her youngest daughter, desperate to see her mother again after so many years, recently arrived in the U.S. through the Biden parole program. That’s how Chacon met her 11-year-old granddaughter.

But for all her optimism, Chacon doesn’t want to die without anything to her name, far away from a family that has kept her anchored to a country that won’t recognize her as its own.

“Us undocumented immigrants, we have been trees, we have put down roots, we have borne fruit, we have given oxygen to this nation, Our trunks have been the pillars.” she said. “We aren’t delinquents or poisoning the blood of his people as he says. But what awaits us? A total felling of the trees.”

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