Anxiety over Trump’s election galvanizes immigration advocacy in Chicago

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Laura Mendoza, 27 is a volunteer with the Resurrection Project and is a DACA recipient. At the Resurrection Project in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood they are giving workshops for people worried about the the Trump presidency. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)

Lily Martinez had never been involved in activism before.

But after Donald Trump was elected president, the 20-year-old Little Village resident felt an immediate call to action, determined that his stance on unauthorized immigrants — saying he intends to immediately deport millions — would not define her community’s future.

So the day after the election, she took a train to Trump Tower, joining thousands in protest.

Trump’s win has prompted alarm in the immigrant community, but it’s also sparked a sense of duty among many to actively fight his proposed policies, including those who have never before been involved in immigration advocacy.

"I’ve never been a part of anything like this. It feels like I’m living in a different time period," said Martinez, who is a U.S. citizen. "The fact that I have to stand out on the streets and cry and scream and lock hands with people beside me, it feels like I’m living through the civil rights movement."

Martinez’s own predominantly Latino neighborhood, typically vibrant, is now "gloomy," she said. Elders no longer sit outside on the streets. People fear deportation and don’t think they have the resources to obtain the documents they need, so they "just don’t want to show their faces."

Although Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised Chicago would continue to be a sanctuary city, where local law enforcement cannot ask about residents’ immigration status, families and activists are uncertain whether that protection is enough. Trump vowed during his campaign to block federal funding to sanctuary cities, ramp up deportations, increase prison sentences for those who re-enter the country and build a wall along the Mexican border.

The immigrant community as a result feels powerless, unable to predict either the swiftness or severity of the enactment of Trump’s plans.

For example, those who’ve found relief through President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offers legal protection to about 742,000 people who were brought to the U.S. as children and stayed here illegally, now fear Trump will rescind the executive order that created DACA.

Various pro-immigrant groups are urging unauthorized immigrants to avoid applying for government programs like DACA, concerned their information could be used to tip off enforcement agencies.

About 450,000 unauthorized immigrants lived in Illinois in 2014, compared with about 500,000 in 2009, according to a study released in September by the Pew Research Center. Unauthorized immigrants make up 3.5 percent of Illinois’ population and 24 percent of all foreign-born residents. About 71 percent of the state’s unauthorized immigrants are Mexican.

"We don’t know how to even get ready because we don’t know how (Trump’s) politics are going to look," said Laura Mendoza, a 27-year-old who came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 6 and does not have legal protection. "But we’re not gonna go ahead and leave, and do what they want us to do — ‘go home’ — because this is home for us."

Futures in flux

A 26-year-old Chicago attorney, who asked not to be identified by name for fear of legal repercussions, has kept her legal status a lifelong secret, anxious about the stigma that came with the truth. She was born in Saudi Arabia, where her Indian father had been working, and she and her family moved to the U.S. three months later on a visitor’s visa. They overstayed, and her younger brother was born in the U.S.

The attorney didn’t learn she was an unauthorized immigrant until she was a teenager. But her status posed one obstacle after another: Her options for college were limited, even though she graduated at the top of her class, and she had to build her resume off unpaid internships and minimum-wage jobs.

If she were deported, she said, she would be sent to India, a country she has never stepped foot in. Trump’s election has her thinking about other options, like moving to Canada and practicing law there. Or, she joked, she could "aggressively date" and marry a U.S. citizen.

She finally revealed her status to a friend after the friend mentioned how all unauthorized immigrants "clean bathrooms and work the fields.

"Some of my friends who don’t know my story fall into that category," she said. "(Trump supporters) think they’re yelling, ‘Go home,’ to people who wash their bathrooms … but they’re also yelling, ‘Go home,’ to lawyers and doctors and highly accomplished people."

DACA recipient Erendira Rendon

, 31, came to the U.S. from Oaxaca, Mexico, when she was 4.

"I’m worried," said Rendon, a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "My parents are 60 years old. My dad has had more than half his life in the U.S. They are still undocumented, and they are getting older. And they can’t work forever. And they are not getting some sort of help when they retire."

Now, she’s assisting families through the Pilsen-based nonprofit The Resurrection Project, which aids Chicago’s Latino community through organizing, education and community development.

"President-elect Trump ran on the deportation of us, and people elected him," Rendon said. "I just don’t understand how you … vote to tear families apart and deport people that are in your communities. That’s what a vote for Trump was. That’s what a vote for Trump meant to me."

Those anxieties were shared by many of the two dozen people who attended an informational workshop Thursday at The Resurrection Project’s resource center in Pilsen, where the organization’s leaders answered immigrants’ legal questions and a licensed clinical counselor walked the group through a breathing exercise to ease their stress.

The organization’s managing attorney, Julie Reiter Pellerite, fielded a salvo of questions in Spanish: What do I do if I’m detained? If I applied to DACA, will an immigration official come to my home? Should I apply for a renewal?

Since the election, she’s been screening unauthorized immigrants to see whether they might be eligible for a certain visa or immigrant visa petition for battered spouses.

"There’s a renewed fear among the community, the fear of deportation," Pellerite said. "So our responsibility is to counter that fear with facts and to inform people they have rights."

The Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center has been flooded with calls from people concerned with their immigration status and DACA paperwork, said Tara Tidwell Cullen, the center’s director of communications. The center is a legal-aid organization that provides resources to unauthorized immigrants in Chicago and across the nation.

And a family support hotline at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights has received more than 300 calls this week from those desperate for information. Volunteers are overwhelmed, said Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel at the coalition.

"As anxious as people are, they’re also staying strong and they’re standing in solidarity with each other. They know what’s coming and they have a sense of what’s going to be necessary," Tsao said. Unauthorized immigrants, like citizens, have the right to remain silent and the right not to answer their doors, he said.

"We’re still gonna be in the fight. We’re still going to make sure our families and communities are protected."

A call for action

Attorney Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz had planned to slowly return from a leave of absence after years caring for her children. But this year, she decided to "fast-track" her return in light of the election.

"The rhetoric in this election reinvigorated my passion and reminded me to stand up for core values: fairness, equality and justice. I’m diving in because I feel so strongly about these issues," she said. "They’re the reason I became involved in law. I learned lawyers are on the front lines defending those founding principles: liberty, justice, equality. These issues are front and center in immigration."

Gong-Gershowitz had primarily handled commercial litigation in addition to pro bono immigration cases. But her motivation to attend law school was sparked by a civil rights attorney who represented her grandparents against deportation.

"The irony of that is my family came for many of the same reasons that a lot of others are now," she said. "For me, when I learned about my family history, it seemed to me like one of the finest ways to honor (the attorney’s) gift to my family was to pay it forward."