Jeovanni Islas would normally be at work, laying tile in someone’s bathroom in the Atlanta area. Instead, he is staying home on this recent weekday, retreating further into the shadows.
There are just too many risks for Islas, an unauthorized immigrant from Mexico who graduated from South Gwinnett High School. Immigration authorities recently locked up the mother of his U.S.-born children after she was arrested for driving without a license. So what would happen to their three daughters if he were also caught driving unlicensed?
Immigrants like Islas are accustomed to being on their guard all the time. They instruct their children not to talk about their parents’ legal status. They scan social media to keep up with the whereabouts of police. They stay in constant contact by phone, ensuring their loved ones make it to their jobs or back home.
But now, amid President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration, they are going deeper into hiding and taking more serious precautions, according to local police, immigration attorneys and foreign consul generals. Like Islas, they are remaining close to home, staying off the roads and rushing to obtain dual citizenship for their children in case they are deported.
At the same time, police have noticed an alarming drop in 911 calls from an area heavily populated with immigrants and are hearing reports of parents keeping their kids home from school. Other immigrants are said to be selling off their cars and homes and preparing to return to their native countries.
Lean and bearded, Islas considered his next move as he sat on the front porch of his modest home here in rural Walton County. Flanked by tall pines, his house sits off the road in a rural corner that meets all his family’s needs: It’s quiet, the public schools are good, and encounters with police are infrequent.
Olga Santiago-Paez, Islas’ common-law wife, was on her way to work when Gwinnett police pulled her over because her brake lights didn’t work. Finding that she had no driver’s license, the officers took her to jail. From there, immigration authorities picked her up and sent her to a federal detention center in Ocilla, more than 200 miles away in South Georgia. When her daughters asked about her, Islas would tell them she was working.
Islas crossed the Mexican border without authorization about 16 years ago, seeking to get a better education and learn English here. He said he has never returned to his native country but is thinking about doing that now with his family. His wife, also from Mexico, was recently released from detention but is still facing deportation.
“A long time ago, I remember if you would see police in the stores and in the restaurants, you could say, ‘Hi, how are you?’” Islas said. “And now all the people are scared.”
‘It’s time to stop and think’
President Donald Trump’s most famous campaign promise, made on the day he announced his presidential bid, was that he would build a “great, great wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border and make Mexico pay for it. He also would deport people who entered the country illegally and then committed crimes.
Those promises were a key to his election, and Trump voters expect him to deliver: unauthorized immigrants came here illegally and have no right to stay, they believe.
Nancy Gallegos of Gainesville, for example, is a legal immigrant and a Trump voter. She recognizes the plight of unauthorized immigrants — some of them face the disintegration of their families — but says Trump has it right: national security must be the priority.
Gallegos came to the United States from Venezuela and spent 14 years working to become a naturalized American citizen.
“I totally agree with what he is doing because it is time to stop and think about America,” said Gallegos, a human resources manager for a staffing company. “The best thing is to implement a new system because here the system has been violated too much.”
On Feb. 28, in his first speech before a joint session of Congress, Trump sounded different. He was more optimistic. He spoke of “unity” and about “dreaming big.”
But one thing did not change.
“By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone,” he said. “We want all Americans to succeed — but that can’t happen in an environment of lawless chaos.”
‘False, dangerous and irresponsible’
Last month, the administration issued new guidelines that begin the process for building the wall, hiring 15,000 immigration enforcement and Border Patrol officers and enlisting the help of local authorities in deporting people. Those directives vastly increase the pool of people prioritized for expulsion.
The Obama administration — which carried out record numbers of deportations — focused on removing violent criminals, national security threats and recent border crossers. The new administration’s directives go far beyond those priorities, saying the government “no longer will exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.” Now, people suspected of committing crimes and those who are perceived as a public safety risks could face removal.
Seeking to prevent a “sense of panic,” U.S. Homeland Security Department officials are stressing the new guidelines are not intended for “mass deportations.” They pointed out they can apprehend, detain and remove only so many people per year with their limited resources.
“ICE does not conduct sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately,” ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said in a prepared statement. “Reports of ICE checkpoints and sweeps are false, dangerous and irresponsible. These reports create mass panic and put communities and law enforcement personnel in unnecessary danger.”
Still, the fear is real among immigrants, said Massiel Silva, a local immigration attorney representing Santiago-Paez. Silva knows unauthorized immigrants who are required to report regularly to ICE.
“Now they are faced with this dilemma: Should I report to immigration and risk being detained and removed and leave my family here? Or should I just hide?” Silva said. “These people have businesses. A lot of them pay taxes. They have a life. So having to choose to abscond and hide is definitely a very difficult decision.”
‘Confused people, rash decisions’
The phones ring continually inside the boxy white building off Chantilly Drive, near the edge of northeast Atlanta. The Mexican consulate has been fielding anxious calls since federal authorities arrested 87 unauthorized immigrants in Georgia amid a nationwide operation last month.
Some of the callers need simple legal advice. Many are scrambling to obtain Mexican documents for their U.S.-born children, in case they are deported.
“Our telephone system has gotten jammed,” said F. Javier Diaz, Mexico’s consul general in Atlanta. “We are seeing a lot of very confused people who are making very rash decisions.”
Diaz said he and his staff are hearing reports of fearful Mexican nationals selling their property and fleeing.
Some of the anxiety stems from the mistaken idea that “mass deportations, mass raids are going to start happening everywhere,” said Diaz, a Mexican Foreign Service veteran who has held posts in New York, Raleigh, San Diego and at the Mexican Embassy for the U.S. The Atlanta consulate, Diaz said, found that only three of the more than 25 Mexican nationals who were detained in Georgia during the ICE operation last month had no criminal records.
“This would confirm to us that the people who were detained in those operations followed pretty much what ICE was saying – that they were going after some specific people who had criminal records,” Diaz said.
He hastened to add that the Trump administration’s directives give ICE “wide leeway. And that is where the fear is — not necessarily what is actually happening.”
Mexican consulate officials are advising unauthorized immigrants that they have the right to remain silent and should ask for warrants if immigration authorities seek to enter their homes.
Just a mile away on the other side of Interstate 85, Guatemalan consul general Rafael Novielli and his staff are seeing the same worries among their countrymen. Like Diaz, Novielli is seeing a surge of people seeking dual citizenship for their children out of fear they could be expelled. The detention of Guatemalan nationals has not increased significantly since Trump took office, Novielli said, but people are still afraid.
“There is outright fear, which is caused by real information and unfortunately by a lot of rumors,” said Novielli. “Our phone lines are swamped.”
Cops and the community
Doraville Police Chief John King attended a recent community meeting at a Winters Chapel Road apartment community. He wasn’t in uniform and did not carry a sidearm. King, a Mexican native, sat casually on a small round table and spoke in Spanish to the dozens of people in the audience.
King recognizes there is a lot of fear among Doraville’s substantial foreign-born population, driven partly by what he called unclear messaging from Washington and sensational reporting in the news media. So he decided to take a softer approach and appear in plainclothes.
He has a lot of experience dealing with tense situations, having commanded a battalion of Georgia National Guardsmen in Iraq, where he worked hard to win the trust of the local population.
King’s police force asked for the meeting after seeing 911 calls drop in Doraville and after hearing from local elementary school principals that parents were keeping their kids home. His message at the meeting was simple: We are not in the business of immigration enforcement, so please don’t hesitate to call us for help.
“We are here to respond to victims of crimes,” King said. “If you don’t call the police and report crime, the only people who are benefiting from this are the thugs.”
Chamblee police delivered the same message to local residents.
“We are just encouraging everybody to still report all crimes to the police department,” said Capt. Ernesto Ford of the Chamblee Police Department. “Our major concern is the victim and if a crime occurred and whether we have jurisdiction.”
Irrational and rational fear
Dozens of immigrants crowded into the lobby at Christopher Taylor’s immigration law office in Norcross on a recent weekday. Some sat ramrod straight with their arms folded across their chests. Others nervously glanced at their cellphones. A few mothers anxiously tended to their babies.
That crowd was nothing compared to what Taylor saw recently. He pulled up a photo on his cellphone, showing a long line of people forming at the door to his office one recent morning.
Taylor said some of his clients are legal permanent residents who are canceling trips abroad, fearing they would not be able to return. Others are worried whether ICE can track them through the tax ID numbers they use for banking.
“People are scared,” Taylor said. “A lot of it is based on irrational — and rational — fear.”
Taylor is urging those who are here without legal permission to find a lawyer and to not drive if they are unlicensed. Hail a taxi, hop on a bus or find a friend who drives, he tells them. Taylor talked about one of his clients who was recently deported to Mexico after she was pulled over last month for speeding in Gwinnett County. A Forest Park mother of three U.S.-born children, Juana Flores-Velazquez was also accused of driving without a license. And she had been deported once before in 2004.
Now her younger sister — also an unauthorized immigrant — is taking care of her kids. On edge over her sister’s deportation, Norma Flores said she is staying off the roads, while keeping up with the news about the Trump administration’s enforcement policies.
“Ever since my sister was detained, her children have suffered a lot,” she said. “They cry and ask about her. I hope that the government can provide her with an opportunity to be with her children again.”