Through the rearview mirror, Alma watched the blue and red lights flash across her young son’s worried face.
As the police officer approached her car, panic set in. She didn’t have a driver’s license. She never had. Minutes later, a second officer arrived on the scene and asked Alma to exit the vehicle. Her son was crying even before she stepped out of the car, and she says the officer joked as he arrested her. “No license, Mexican,” he laughed.
Like many other undocumented single mothers living in the United States, Alma was taken to a detention center before she could make arrangements for her eight children. She worried most for her adult daughter, who was expecting a baby any day. It would be more than a week before she could rejoin her children.
Undocumented immigrant arrests rose 38 percent nationally during the first 100 days of the Trump presidency compared to the same time period in 2016. Georgia’s arrest rate increased by 75 percent in the same timeframe.
The Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), an advocacy group that works on behalf of undocumented immigrants, says they witnessed a dramatic spike in hotline calls from and on behalf of women arrested by ICE.
Many are similar to Alma: single mothers and long-term residents of the United States with no experience with the criminal justice system. They are often kept in overcrowded facilities where many fall ill due to lack of medical care while their incarceration often leaves children unattended or cared for by the government.
The public vs. the law
The officer who pulled Alma over said he’d been following her for more than 20 minutes when he saw her tire touch the yellow median line. Alma was charged with driving without a license and failure to maintain a lane, although the second charge has since been dropped.
The Cobb County Sheriff’s Office, which has jurisdiction over Alma’s town of Marietta, is one of four counties in Georgia that participates in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement program that delegates immigration enforcement authority to state and local police.
Initially enacted to combat violent gang activity and drug trafficking, ICE’s 287(g) program can erode trust between the public and local law enforcement. Like Alma, many Cobb County residents have been pulled over and detained for minor traffic violations. As a result, many undocumented residents avoid interaction with police by staying inside, isolating themselves from their communities and even choosing not to report crimes.
The Cobb County Sheriff’s office declined to comment on its practices regarding the 287(g) program. Spokespeople at the ICE Atlanta field office were not available for comment.
“It works like a pipeline,” says Julie Mao, a fellow with the National Immigration Project who works closely with GLAHR. According to Mao, the relationship between ICE and local law enforcement has been revamped under the Trump Administration.
On Jan. 25, the president issued an executive order removing Obama-era guidelines that asked ICE and the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize the arrest of undocumented immigrants with serious criminal records. Since then, overall arrests of undocumented immigrants have increased dramatically.
ICE’s Atlanta field office made 11,733 arrests across Georgia and the Carolinas between January and September of last year, including 4,183 non-criminal arrests. This marks a 82 percent increase in total arrests and a 367 percent increase in non-criminal arrests over the same time period in 2016. Mao says undocumented moms are a large part of the shift.
Few communities have felt the impact of this policy shift more deeply than the undocumented single mothers living within reach of the ICE Atlanta office. In an article published by the New York Times in November, ICE Atlanta field office director Sean Gallagher said to those living in the country illegally, “You should be scared.”
But undocumented mothers often cannot take the same precautions as other immigrants. When they need to get to work or get their children to school, they cannot afford to stay off the roads.
“The structural issues of women being the traditional caregivers and traditionally being under-resourced [makes it] very hard for them to fight their deportations,” says Mao. “They’re thinking about putting food on the table for their kids. Those responsibilities come first.”
But these mothers’ stories don’t end behind bars. They’re organizing. Mothers, daughters, babysitters, best friends and sisters are mobilizing. Some have started online funding campaigns to meet bond payments. Others are spreading resources and raising awareness.
A sisterhood is emerging, known as the luchadoras, and now they’re fighting back.
A sisterhood of fighters
Adelina Nicholls, executive director of GLAHR, sits at her desk in a bright yellow office. Behind her, dozens of patterned origami hummingbirds climb the wall, affixed to a wire tree.
“We decided to make 7,000 [of them],” she says. Each folded bird represents one of the nearly 7,000 people deported by the ICE Atlanta field office between January and July in 2017. “When we talk about numbers, it’s always a lot of people, but when you actually see 7,000 origami hummingbirds it’s like, ‘Oh my god.’”
GLAHR is a community-based nonprofit that advocates for immigrant civil rights. Their volunteers organize campaigns, help families notarize documents and connect those facing deportation with immigration lawyers. Both leadership and membership of its 18 local chapters are largely dominated by women.
“I think the aggressiveness of the deportation machine touches deep into the core of women,” says Nicholls.
Nicholls noticed that many of the women seeking GLAHR’s services were undocumented single mothers. She, along with other volunteers, began to call them las luchadoras, or the fighters. All of the women who participate in this network have one thing in common: they do it for the sake of their children, many of whom are U.S. citizens.
Regular meetings are held in the office on Monday nights, but most of the resources are spread by word of mouth. If someone spots an ICE patrol vehicle in their neighborhood, they may call GLAHR to help issue a warning to residents. If a woman is detained, a friend may phone a family member to offer to help care for the children or recommend a good lawyer.
There is no coherent system in place to reunify children with their parents if their only parent is deported, according to staff at GLAHR. Although child welfare policy stresses the importance of family reunification, the foster care system isn’t prepared to facilitate the process across borders.
In 2011, approximately 5,000 children were in the foster care system because they had a detained or deported parent, according to a report by the Urban Institute and the Migration Policy Institute. These children were 29 percent more likely to have a detained or deported parent if they lived in counties with 287(g) agreements, a study by the Applied Research Center says. With the spike in immigrant arrests and expansion of ICE’s partnership program, these numbers are expected to be much higher today.
Long-term separation can threaten a parent’s right to custody of their child. The Adoption and Safe Families Act, enacted under the Clinton Administration, requires states to petition for the termination of parental rights if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. To single mothers facing the threat of deportation, this is the nightmare scenario.
Moms who are deported back to their country of origin have to coordinate between U.S. child welfare and immigration systems to fight for reunification with their children. This can be incredibly challenging to navigate from abroad, especially if the infrastructure of their home country is underdeveloped. Fifteen months is often not enough time.
Another study by the Urban Institute found that most children showed at least four adverse behavior changes within the six months following an immigration-related arrest of a parent.
Many also changed their eating or sleeping habits.
“After someone goes through a traumatic event, and having your parent detained is a traumatic event, it’s normal to have symptoms like depression, anxiety, and fear,” says Tatiana Ortega, a clinical psychiatrist associated with GLAHR. “After two weeks, if [symptoms] persist, that’s when we say it’s a mental health disorder. For a lot of these youth, it becomes chronic.”
Alma says her children experienced symptoms of distress during the 10 days she was in detention. At first, she didn’t want to tell her youngest children where she was. She remembers the phone conversation with her daughters, ages six and eight.
“Mommy, where are you?” they asked. As Alma choked back tears, she told them she was away working because she needed money. She had a tougher time convincing her four-year-old son where she was. He was in the car when she was arrested.
“I saw the police take you,” cried Alma’s son when she tried to tell him she was away for work. He was quick to tell his siblings that their mom wasn’t telling the truth.
“That really hurt me, that my son had to see all of that,” says Alma. “I teach them not to lie. What am I supposed to do?” For a few weeks following her arrest, Alma says her son became fearful every time he saw a police car.
Children can exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as soon as two days after the arrest of a parent, says Ortega. Symptoms often persist even after a parent is released from ICE custody due to the continued fear that the parent may be detained again.
An article in the journal Science claims that treatment of these mental disorders will cost society because the children are U.S. citizens. According to the article, treatment of mental health disorders “account for the highest total health care expenditures of all children’s medical conditions and are associated with poor long-term outcomes for school performance and welfare reliance.”
Over 4 million U.S. citizen children under the age of 18 currently live with at least one undocumented parent, according to the American Immigration Council. Nearly 6 million children live with a family member who is undocumented.
Alma doesn’t think her children will suffer any long-term adverse effects from her detainment. She says they understand that she’s in a process and faces no immediate threat of deportation.
On July 10, 2017, Alma was released under ICE’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, which required her to wear an ankle bracelet and check in regularly with ICE and Immigration Services. The bracelet needed to be charged at intervals throughout the day, which she says caused her to lose her job at a local restaurant.
Now, Alma is waiting. An immigration judge allowed her to apply for a work permit, but it could be several weeks before it comes through. In the meantime, her youngest daughters are living with their father.
“I just want us all to be together. I hope to get my work permit so I’m able to provide for my family,” says Alma.
“I know that God has it. I just have to wait.”