Immigration enforcement changes hit home in Alaska

(Creative Commons photo courtesy of Icars)  .

Late last month the Trump administration released new instructions on how Homeland Security is supposed to implement immigration policies. Under the Obama administration, immigration officers focused on deporting people who committed serious crimes. Now, everyone who has violated immigration laws could be arrested, detained, and deported. These changes put some Alaskans in limbo.

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Matteo and Valentine sat in their immaculate living room. The furniture, the art, and the wall color are all perfectly coordinated, like in a magazine. A teacup-sized puppy in a pink sweater bounces around their feet and climbs up on the interpreter’s lap.

“They’ve just bought a house a few months ago, thinking they have a life in the United States,” the interpreter explained after Matteo spoke in Spanish. “But now, even being here, they don’t feel like the house really belongs to them.”

The couple arrived with two of their children in 2005 from Latin America. We’re not using their real names or their country of origin. They have immigration documents, but they aren’t permanent residents. One of their children is undocumented. Matteo said they could be considered criminals just for having a child who is undocumented living in their house.

“They want to think sometimes it’s a nightmare because you can wake up from a nightmare but right now, it’s just simply terrifying,” the interpreter said.

Matteo used to work as a police officer fighting drug cartels in Latin America. He was used to receiving death threats, but he says 10 years ago, they threatened to kill his oldest son. He realized the danger was real and imminent, so they fled to the United States. Valentine had to leave her oldest daughter behind with her parents. She hasn’t seen her in a decade.

Their immigration lawyer, Lea McDermid, said the family, like many others, are in limbo. Speaking during a phone interview, she said up until the new orders were issued, if a person filed paperwork to try to stay in the country legally they would be somewhat protected from being deported by the Department of Homeland Security.

“In other words, DHS knows you are here but because you are in the process of applying for a benefit you are considered extremely low priority for removal,” she said. “Well now, all the priorities are out the window. I mean Trump has announced that basically everyone is a priority for removal.”

“We should expect to see more people deported who are married to American citizens and don’t have criminal records,” said immigration attorney Margaret Stock during a phone interview. “That’s what I’m seeing.”

Stock said it’s not like people want to be out of compliance with immigration laws, it’s just really complicated. “If you want to get your paperwork here in America processed you have to have money and time. You have to have all your documents in order and it’s not easy for people to do.”

For Matteo and Valentine, it was hard to live without documents their first few years in the country. Matteo said he felt like one of the criminals he used to pursue as a law enforcement officer. As soon as they had documents and social security numbers, the couple established their own businesses and started building their lives here, in safety.

Matteo said he’s worried about how immigration laws are being enforced and what that means for his family. But he’s also concerned about how attitudes towards immigrants are changing.

“They’re not worried about the wall Trump wants to build at the border,” the interpreter said. “They’re worried about the wall that’s being built through hate and rejection of immigrants in the hearts and minds of people. Because that’s a wall that you can’t see.”

For now, Matteo and his family are just living their lives as normally as possible. They are saving the money they planned to use to expand their house and setting it aside, just in case. But they can’t go back to Latin America because it’s too dangerous. They want to stay here, in their home.