How Undocumented Texas Immigrants Are Preparing for President Trump

How Undocumented Texas Immigrants Are Preparing for President Trump

Community gather in front of mural on the wall outside the Workers Defense Project, where they meet to discuss the incoming president. "We have to have every single paper in place," says one organizer. Ilana Panich-Linsman for Rolling Stone

As inauguration day approaches, organizers ready their community for a possible immigration crackdown

As inauguration day approaches, organizers ready their community for a possible immigration crackdown

Every weekday at 6 a.m., Virginia Badillo gets up and makes breakfast for her son, David. It's usually a healthy meal – eggs with a side of mixed fruit. David dozes in the bedroom while Badillo cooks, his small frame sprawled across the mattress they share with his father, Francisco Guzman, a landscaper. The three live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a North Austin multiplex. There's no space for a second bed.

Badillo wakes David up at 6:30. After breakfast, Badillo gets David showered and dressed, then drops him off at KIPP Austin Comunidad, a dual-language charter school where David attends kindergarten. Badillo owns a cleaning business so depending on the day, she'll go back home or head to a client. It's not consistent work, but it's flexible, which means she can spend more time with her son.

That time, though, is growing more uncertain, since Badillo and Guzman are undocumented immigrants. Like the other estimated 11 million who live in the United States, they're worried their family will be torn apart by severe anti-immigration efforts expected under President Donald Trump. More so, in a country where white supremacists have been emboldened by an impulsive billionaire-turned-politician, they fear for their lives.

In Texas, Badillo is among a growing group of immigrant activists who've banded together to resist the impending Trump regime. They're helping undocumented immigrants put together emergency plans in the event of deportation. They're putting pressure on their public officials to end law enforcement cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And they're organizing meetings and events directly in their communities.

As a lead organizer with the Austin-based Workers Defense Project, a non-profit that advocates for low-wage workers, Badillo is beginning to prepare other undocumented immigrants for what's to come, even if that means risking her safety. On a cool Tuesday night in early in December, members of the Workers Defense Project are gathering at the non-profit's East Austin headquarters, the site of a former nursery school.

Several members take seats on black folding chairs arranged in loose rows. Others squat down on a white bench built into a back wall. At 7 p.m., Badillo, a 44-year-old originally from Mexico, takes the stage. The organizer is petite, with dark hair pulled back in a low ponytail. She wears a black puffer vest with a gray hood. Underneath, she sports a long-sleeve red shirt. Badillo calls this outfit her "power suit." "When you wear red, you're a leader," she says.

Badillo leads the meeting in Spanish. She conducts every meeting this way, with an infectious smile and a demeanor that commands attention. Sam Robles, WDP's communications director, interprets the important bits in English. Tonight, they're talking about wage theft cases and how to report violations to the U.S. Occupational and Health Safety Administration. There are a few dozen members there. Some listen carefully. Others fidget in their seat. Most, though, laugh at the quick jokes Badillo makes. Humor's her way of getting the crowd to respond to her call-to-arms.

Badillo wants to galvanize the members into action, but it's not easy to mobilize a population gripped by fear. Badillo says undocumented people are used to the anti-immigrant sentiment in a red state like Texas, despite more than a million undocumented immigrants living within its borders. After all, its governor, Greg Abbott, filed the lawsuit that took down DAPA – or "Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents" – President Barack Obama's program to provide undocumented parents temporary amnesty. But Trump's inflammatory rhetoric against immigrants – his derogatory depiction of Mexicans as "criminals" and "rapists" – has exacerbated their anxiety.

"All this time, I've never felt such an assault on me and my family," Badillo says.

• • • 

During his raucous campaign, Trump promised to deport every single undocumented immigrant if elected president. Now that he's won – an outcome solidified by Monday's Electoral College vote – Trump trimmed that number down to 3 million. Some pundits claim this scale-back means he softened his stance; yet his cabinet picks suggest otherwise. The man tapped to lead DHS, retired Marine Corps General John Kelly, is staunchly anti-immigrant and believes in a tightened border. The same goes for Jeff Sessions, who Trump named Attorney General. All signs point to draconian policy changes once his administration is in full power.

Carmen Zuvieta, a leader of the ICE Out of Austin campaign to end city compliance with federal deportation efforts, likens what's facing undocumented immigrants to a natural disaster. With a tornado, Zuvieta says, you have to have canned food and bottled water in the event you lose electricity or your water supply is tainted. With Trump, you have to have all your legal affairs in order in the event you're detained and deported.

"We have to have every single paper in place," she says. "We have to have a power of attorney for guardianship of our kids. We have to have a lawyer to take care of [our] affairs. All we can do, we have to do."

Zuvieta sits on the edge of her couch as she talks. Her 6-year-old son, Amaury, sits on the floor next to her, playing a game on his tablet, while her 18-year-old daughter, Silvia, sits at the kitchen table. The 43-year-old mother of three, who came to Austin from Mexico 20 years ago, joined ICE Out a few years ago after her husband was deported home to Mexico on a criminal charge. The family fought to stop the deportation for years – a process that took a mental and emotional toll on the children. Silvia says she spent two weeks under psychiatric evaluation because of a suicide attempt. Amaury, she says, has bad separation anxiety.

"For a child to see their family being ripped away them, it is very hard," Silvia tells me later.

Silvia often joins her mother at ICE Out of Austin meetings. She also works with Youth Rise Texas, a nonprofit based in Austin focused on issues of incarceration and deportation. As a Youth Rise member, Silvia gives speeches about the impact of detention and deportation on children. She also sits down with local politicians to discuss immigration policy reform. The youth-led group is planning a school walkout on Inauguration Day in protest of not just trump, but the entire Republican machine. "We honestly fear our parents will be targeted more than they are already."

While protesting in the streets can raise awareness, for undocumented immigrants, the way to resist Trump's America is to cross every t and dot every i. ICE Out of Austin leaders have created educational packages that include information on how to deal with law enforcement at your door, how to set up a power of attorney, how to arrange guardianship for children and where to find a good lawyer. This way, if they're ever caught in a bad situation, they'll know what to do and who to call.

Similarly, the Workers Defense Project has ramped up how often the nonprofit plays "Know Your Rights" videos during meetings. To make sure the information sticks, members role-play what they've learned. The role-play exercises aren't always smooth. Some may stumble through their lines. Others may forget the next step or hesitate out of embarrassment. But WDP staff encourages people to work through their mistakes and not shut down. Mistakes, they say, help members really understand what's at stake.

The nonprofit is also helping members plan for worst-case scenarios, from finding alternative custody to contracting a private lawyer and putting together a financial strategy – a place where Badillo and her husband find themselves now.

Many members have also cut back on spending and sending money back home. Badillo says it's important for undocumented immigrants to be able to financially support family from thousands of miles away, but with Trump's inauguration less than a month away, they know they need to hold onto every dollar in case they need a lawyer or or have to suddenly pick up and leave.

• • • 

Badillo's apartment is sparsely decorated. There's little furniture – the dining table, a beige love seat, a small, mounted flat-screen TV and a compact workstation. Only a few photographs line the walls. A family portrait from when David was one year old hangs above where Badillo sits. Near the television is David's pre-kindergarten graduation photo. In the den area just a few feet away, a Christmas tree decorated with stuffed-animal ornaments stands across from David's play area, littered with crayons and Minions toys. It's not much, Badillo says, but it's enough to get by.

As an undocumented immigrant, Badillo has always had to be on guard. But Trump presents a new kind of danger for the undocumented population. And while the holidays are often a joyous time for Badillo, the fear Trump's instilled in her family has extinguished their light. "We're not having a very merry Christmas this year," Badillo says, her eyes welling with tears.

"As long as I'm surviving, I can survive here with less," she continues, "but we shouldn't have to live like that."

The WDP is also organizing grassroots actions to reach immigrants who can't travel, are cut off from technology or are afraid of exposing their status. They plan to host house meetings and canvass at flea markets, community centers, churches and outside of the office of the Consulate General of Mexico – places, Badillo says, where "we know our community is."

This is true of the colonias deep in the lower Rio Grande Valley, says Efrén C. Olivares, Texas Civil Rights Project's South Texas regional legal director. Many undocumented families living in these unregulated settlements lack basic utilities, like sewerage or electricity. Others don't have access to everyday luxuries like smartphones or tablets. "Known Your Rights" videos are helpful in spreading information, but it's less likely someone living in a trailer home in a colonia will have the means to watch them, he says.

"We really do need to get back to the old school way of organizing," Olivares says. "Relying just on the internet or social media is not going to be enough this time."

In South Texas, Texas Civil Rights Project has teamed up with local organizing groups to hold open forums where community members can ask questions about immigration, rather than sit through a fixed agenda. In West Texas, legal and grassroots groups have teamed up to produce reports on due process issues in detention centers and barriers to counsel. In a business sense, explains one undocumented WDF member who asked not to be identified, it wouldn't make sense for the United States to deport undocumented immigrants because it would "leave the country without labor."

"The fear of what is about to happen has really galvanized those two sectors," says Brian Jacobi, Texas Civil Rights Project's regional legal director for El Paso. "It's extremely important to have everybody in the community buy in."

• • •

Immigrants, though, aren't the only ones hunkering down to prep for a Trump presidency. Some law enforcement has also joined the resistance.

When the Travis County sheriff post was up for election, Zuvieta and other ICE Out of Austin members met with the candidates to talk about ICE's "Secure Communities" enforcement program. Austin, the county seat, has long been a city that's welcomed immigrants, but Greg Hamilton, the outgoing sheriff, had a history of using local jails to enforce federal immigration policy.

Sally Hernandez, the newly elected sheriff, had said during her campaign that she would stop complying with ICE detainers if elected, yet Zuvieta and other immigrant activists are skeptical if she'll follow through. It's not that Hernandez has contradicted her statements, Zuvieta says, it's that they can't trust that law enforcement is on their side. But if Hernandez does end that cooperation, that would make Austin the first sanctuary city in the state of Texas. And that would keep the Democratic stronghold "at the forefront of trying to keep immigrants safe and trying to keep our communities as a whole safe," says Cristina Tzintzún, executive director of JOLT Texas, a fledgling Latina-led multi-issue nonprofit.

But the Texas GOP wants to shut it down. Republican Sen. Charles Perry filed legislation to ban sanctuary cities in the state, and Governor Abbott threatened to withhold funding from cities that refuse to enforce ICE detainers, putting social services in jeopardy. To immigrant-rights advocates, denying funding is a strong-arm attempt to get officials to enforce federal immigration law at the expense of Texans.

"Right now, the state legislature is playing a game of chicken with [people's] lives," says Tzintzún.

On January 20th, thousands of people will head to Auditorium Shores, an urban park across the river from downtown Austin, to protest Trump's inauguration as the United States' 45th president. Vicky Badillo and other Workers Defense Project members plan to join the protesters. So will members from ICE Out of Austin. JOLT Texas, Texas Civil Rights Project and 13 other Austin-based non-profits will host. So far, more than 1,500 people plan to attend, according to the event's Facebook page.

There's safety with large-scale actions, Badillo says. People who attend the January inauguration rally will provide undocumented immigrants a way to protest without compromising their identity. Badillo believes more undocumented immigrants would become activists if more citizens stood by their sides. Americans, she says, can risk exposure in a way undocumented people can't. They act as camouflage, providing cover so that undocumented immigrants can get involved with less fear.

"That's powerful," she says. "Being able to speak out, I feel liberated. I feel strong. When you have allies – when you have citizens – that validates me."