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The day after Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election, our phone was ringing off the hook. It was pandemonium. We serve many immigrants in our community, and many were downright frightened. We even got emails and calls from out-of-state communities as far east as Florida and New York.
The questions were persistent: Should I leave the country now, before they come and get me? Should I go into hiding? What will happen to my children, or to my elderly parents? Will they come to arrest me? Is there anything we can do right now? Should we sell our house? Do we have any legal recourse? Can you defend us, and what will it cost?
People are emotional, and they are desperate.
“I Would Go Back If Trump Wins”
Even before the election, people are already wary. A client of mine from Columbia (whom I’ll call Ella) warned me that she'll leave the country if Trump wins. I remember her concern while in my office a few weeks before the election.
"I would go back if Trump wins,” Ella told me, frowning. “This country has many stupid people. I don't know why people are voting for him.”
Promises, Policies and Rumors
This is kind of panic was expected with a Trump victory. From the outset, Trump has made immigration the centerpiece of his campaign, promising to build an "impenetrable wall" between the U.S. and Mexico to keep illegal immigrants out. He even initially said that Mexico would pay for it.
In addition, he promised to revoke Obama's executive actions, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). Trump has also declared that he would triple the number of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents (ICE). It has been reported that Obama is trying to talk him out of it.
At the writing of this article, months from his inauguration, Trump has already promised to deport 2 to 3 million immigrants who committed crimes. People speculate that in order to catch this many immigrants, a large deportation force would be necessary. There would be raids, sweeps, and other tactics to find these illegal immigrants. On a recent episode of 60 Minutes, Trump claimed that he is going to remove or incarcerate immigrant drug dealers and gang members.
Between now and January 2017, when he is officially inaugurated, the plan may change. Paul Ryan, the U.S. Speaker of the House, is already trying to soften the expectations. He is on the record as saying that there would be no deportation force. But nevertheless, fear and panic are spreading in the immigrant community.
Grain of Salt: What’s Already Happening (And What Isn’t)
It is extremely difficult to advise people on what to do. We don't want them to go into hiding and abandon their jobs or leave their loved ones, or in any way drastically change their living situation. We don't have any firm information on what Trump will actually do. We have even heard reports that Trump may be softening his intentions on deportation.
But frightened people are looking for answers. This is the perfect time for immigrants to become vulnerable to frauds or scams from crooks who may offer deceptive solutions or false hopes.
However, you can – and probably should – take all of these promises and intentions with a grain of salt. This is far from the best legal advice, but we need something to make some sense of this immigration debacle. Trump and his cabinet will go slow on this immigration deal. The fact that he intends to deport initially 2-3 million immigrants is not really new, and is not yet cause for alarm or panic.
Immigration Under Obama
For years now, even with the Obama administration, the Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) has been prioritizing "illegal aliens" with criminal records. In fact, Obama has been criticized as the president who has deported more people than any of the men who have held the office before him.
Under the Obama administration, ICE also implemented what's called "prosecutorial discretion." This means that the attorney working on the government's case will have the discretion to pursue a case or choose how a case is handled. There is no mandatory policy to deport or remove an immigrant. What normally happens in these types of cases is that if a "defendant" does not have a criminal record, the government attorney is likely to agree to close the case if there are other immigration relief efforts available. For instance, if the defendant is married to a U.S. citizen and has no criminal record, the case will be "administratively closed" until further notice.
But if the defendant has a criminal record, the current laws already make it very tough for the defendant to stay in the U.S. For instance, if you have a record as a drug trafficker, or have committed some other type of felony, there is virtually no immigration relief. You will be deported. It's just a matter of time. But nonetheless, please consult with an attorney.
Bottom Line: What Should You Do?
For now, people may want to stay under the radar and be careful. I assure you that there is no need to leave the country or sell your possessions. This sort of panic may be premature. In short, you should be cautious, but also slow to act. The government certainly will be. The checks and balances will ensure that you will know well in advance if there is any action that needs to be taken concerning immigration. Until then, proceed as normal.
We will keep you posted.