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Washington is a state of fear for many Latino immigrants

Sara Irish, who got her citizenship in 2008, said she feels safe in Tacoma but is afraid to leave it. “It is scary,” Irish said.
Sara Irish, who got her citizenship in 2008, said she feels safe in Tacoma but is afraid to leave it. “It is scary,” Irish said. lwong@thenewstribune.com

Many Latino immigrants are living in a state of unease in Washington.

Whether naturalized U.S. citizens or undocumented residents, they are following developments in immigration policy, from reports of increased deportations to the building of President Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border.

The latest news came Tuesday, when the Trump administration announced it was expanding its enforcement priorities for people living in the United States illegally, including immigrants arrested for traffic violations.

The News Tribune interviewed three Washington residents recently with varying immigration statuses. Some are making plans for their families should they be deported. Others worry that their legal immigration status could change.

‘MARRY ME AND I’LL GIVE YOU THE PAPERS’

Had there been a wall across the Mexican border in 2012, Blanca would have flown right over it.

The native of El Salvador in Central America flew from her home to Las Vegas for a convention.

She never left.

Today the Tacoma woman works as a waitress and community volunteer. The News Tribune knows her identity, but because she is undocumented is not publishing her last name.

Blanca, 30, has worked hard to never cross the law, not even a speeding ticket.

“I’ve just been trying to do my best here,” she said. “I know I’m not doing anything (wrong.)”

But she knows she’s overstayed.

“I know I have to fix my situation in this country,” she said.

One thing she won’t do is enter a sham marriage.

“Believe me, I have had a lot of opportunities to do that,” she said. “Men come to me (and say), ‘You’re a hard worker, you’re a good woman. Marry me and I’ll give you the papers.’ 

The men have different motives.

“Some of them have a good heart, some of them want to take advantage of you.” Blanca said. “Who wouldn’t want a woman who works two jobs and pays the bills?”

Blanca turns them all down.

“Because of my values and the morals that I have been taught, that is something I haven’t considered,” she said.

While her legal status hasn’t changed with the new administration, her state of mind has.

“(Trump’s) politics against immigrants isn’t the right way to lead this country,” Blanca said. “I don’t want to be disrespectful to him, because he’s the president of the country I live in, but it’s like living under a dictator.”

She supports deportation of immigrants who commit serious crimes. But Trump is going beyond that.

“What I see now, it’s not the case,” Blanca said. “That’s the part that makes me tremble.”

Undocumented residents such as Blanca live in a constant state of risk, she said.

“The people need a voice,” she said. “The voice needs to be heard.”

‘WE JUST WANT A BETTER LIFE’

Mario, 46, is a property manager in Pacific County.

Though he holds a green card, he did not want his last name used for this story. The News Tribune has verified his identity and his immigration status.

“People are afraid to talk about it (publicly) because they could be a target,” Mario said, “even if they have green cards.”

He was 18 when he crossed the border from his native Mexico into the United States.

“I just walked across, nobody ask any questions,” he said.

He made his way to Pacific County, where he had family members. There, he married an American woman.

Mario obtained his green card in 1996. He has two American-born sons and three grandchildren.

“My gringitos,” said Mario, a genial man with an easy laugh.

Despite what should be a safe and stable immigration status, Mario said he and others like him are nervous.

A large Latino population lives in Pacific County, where they work in the oyster and logging industries. Mario has worked in both, collected scrap metal, and worked other jobs.

“They have concerns about what’s going to happen in the future: Can the law change and affect them?” he said.

One fear is that green cards can be taken away and replaced with work permits, which would result in a loss of rights.

“All their Social Security they have paid, all their retirement,” he said.

Many are taking a fatalistic attitude.

“They say, ‘If they throw me out, they throw me out,’ ” Mario said.

The executive orders already issued by the Trump administration and that more are on the horizon has left Mario anxious.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Every day I’m just wondering.”

He was planning a trip to California and Mexico this month, but now will visit only California. He fears he might not be let back in the country, a situation too painful to consider, he said.

“This is home for me,” Mario said. “I have my kids here. I wouldn’t know where to go if I was taken away from them.”

Mario said he supports a strong border and a regulated immigration system. But the recent crackdowns and invectives aimed at the Latino community have him perplexed.

“I don’t see the problem,” Mario said. “We just want a better life.”

The federal Department of Homeland Security released documents Tuesday about how the agency will enforce Trump’s orders.

They showed that immigration enforcers have been directed to remove anyone in the country illegally who has been convicted of any criminal offense. Before, the Obama administration prioritized removing those convicted of serious crimes.

Told of the new directive, Mario initially said he was OK with deporting criminals. Asked whether he was OK with the deportation of people who had not committed serious crimes, but less serious offenses, he said he wanted more information.

“I just don’t know what to think about it at this moment,” he said.

‘I’M FEARFUL TO LEAVE TACOMA’

Sara Irish, 52, grew up in Mexico City, the daughter of a Lebanese immigrant father and an immigrant mother from Spain.

She was introduced to America as an exchange student in Ohio. She later went to college there as well.

Irish got her last name from her American husband. She got her citizenship in 2008.

The organizer for Stand for Children, a children’s advocacy group, said she feels safe in Tacoma but is afraid to leave it.

“It is scary,” Irish said. “Now I’m fearful to leave Tacoma because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Irish is going to get an enhanced driver’s license, which displays citizenship. But she still won’t feel safe traveling, she said.

“I’m scared because there are a lot of ignorant people out there who will stereotype,” Irish said. “I have an accent. I don’t look white. I’m going to have to prove everything when I don’t need to do that. That is one of the things the United States assured me when I became a citizen.”

She points out that undocumented people can be from Canada and Europe, but the recent uptick in deportations seems to be focusing on Latinos.

The change in attitude is not just from the government. A few days after Trump’s inauguration, she was at Office Depot in Tacoma and noticed a man following her.

“I ask him, ‘Can I help you?’ He goes, ‘No, I was just wondering when you are going to be sent back to where you came from.’ 

She thinks people who feel bold enough to say things like that are taking cues from the top.

“The people feel supported and they feel entitled to insult and disrespect people because there is no consequences anymore,” she said.

She knows President Barack Obama sometimes was referred to as the “Deporter in Chief,” but she feels Trump’s policies come with prejudice.

“The Trump administration is about generalizing and stereotyping,” Irish said. “Presidents never diminished people by saying all of those people are criminals.”

Craig Sailor:

253-597-8541,

@crsailor

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