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For undocumented people, a wary, ICE-y Christmas season

Deportation would separate some from their families and end their carefully nurtured lives in the United States. For others, a return to their homelands could be dangerous or even fatal.

James came to Philadelphia from Ghana, then stayed when his visa expired. Harsher enforcement has made him and other undocumented people more cautious.
James came to Philadelphia from Ghana, then stayed when his visa expired. Harsher enforcement has made him and other undocumented people more cautious.Read moreJeff Gammage

During the last few months, as the temperature dropped and the heat rose, James perfected a critical skill: going unnoticed.

On the road, he scrupulously obeys traffic laws, never so much as running a yellow light. He doesn't go to the doctor or hospital, no matter how sick. Except for work — pumping gas, cutting lawns, shoveling snow — he tends to stay behind a locked door.

"If what I need to do outside is not very important, I don't go out," said James, 41, who came to Philadelphia from Ghana. "You can't show yourself."

The reason? He's in the United States illegally. And these days, he and others said, immigration-enforcement agents are cracking down like never before.  Immigration advocates say that officers who once aimed to arrest specific targets now detain anyone they can find.

"People are very afraid," said veteran Philadelphia immigration attorney Judith Bernstein-Baker, the former executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania. "They're staying away from places they think will do them harm."

For some, deportation would separate them from their families and end their carefully nurtured lives in the United States. For others, who fled here for safety, a return to their homelands could be dangerous or even fatal.

James, who agreed to speak only if his surname was withheld, was a journalist in Ghana, where his reporting on official corruption brought vengeful police and soldiers to his door. His life in danger, he arranged to legally enter the United States in 2009, and stayed after his visa expired in 2010.

Today, under the Trump administration's stricter enforcement, James and others see any contact with authority or government as potentially life-altering. That nervousness is producing overt changes in the way undocumented immigrants live in the Philadelphia region.

Some stopped driving. The bus or subway is safer. When police come into the neighborhood, or rumors circulate of an impending immigration raid, some people stay inside and keep sons and daughters home from school. Some parents counsel their kids to never mention their immigration status, lest a child's slip put the family in jeopardy. Some people have begun using encrypted email systems, or communicating through protective apps, after learning that the Department of Homeland Security intended to collect social-media information on immigrants.

"Many people are living on the edge, day by day, worried about what could happen," said Maria Sotomayor, who immigrated from Ecuador and now works as deputy director of the Pennsylvania Immigration & Citizenship Coalition, an immigrant-rights group.

Arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are up 34 percent this year in the Philadelphia district, which includes Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia. Many are "collateral arrests," made when ICE agents encounter people who were not initially being sought.

"They come into the house looking for one person, and they take them and anyone else who is there. That's a shift in the last couple months," said Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, an interfaith advocate.

Morales, 51, a New Jersey man who agreed to be interviewed only if he was identified by his surname, watches TV news obsessively, alert to reports of new immigration laws or sudden arrests.

"When I'm stepping out of the door in the morning, I worry," said Morales, who came here from Mexico 20 years ago, seeking a better life. "In the night, I don't go out."

He works a dangerous job, cutting down trees. But he doesn't try to buy life insurance, which his American wife and children could need, worried he might have to share information that could get him deported.

Morales and his wife always pay cash. They make sure their bills and accounts are kept up to date, so no one thinks to inquire. When they go to Florida, they travel by car, because boarding a plane would require a show of identification.

"I drive, because we're terrified of what could possibly happen," she said.

At home they keep a cache of emergency money — to hire a lawyer in case immigration agents show up in the middle of the night.

Morales is one of about 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, half of them Mexican. Roughly 50,000 live in Philadelphia. President Trump has made it a priority to deport them, saying many are dangerous criminals. Others argue that illegal immigration makes a mockery of the law, and hurts the economy by reducing the wages of American workers.

In less than a year, Trump has banned immigration from several Muslim-majority countries, eliminated the DACA program that shielded nearly 790,000 young immigrants from deportation, and in November ended the Temporary Protected Status that allowed nearly 60,000 Haitians to live and work here after a ruinous 2010 earthquake.

The administration has fought in court — so far unsuccessfully — to withhold federal law-enforcement grants from sanctuary cities, including Philadelphia. The ICE raids on 10 sanctuary jurisdictions in fall were seen as payback by immigration advocates.

ICE says it's keeping Americans safe and enforcing the law. In fiscal 2016, ICE made 3,672 arrests in the Philadelphia district. In 2017 that grew to 4,938.

One result is undocumented people may not speak up even when they're victims of crimes, knowing ICE agents have shown up at courthouses and arrested people in hallways.

In a poll by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, 80 percent of surveyed agencies and law firms reported that immigrant victims were afraid to contact the police. Many believed that would be a fast route to deportation, especially if their abuser was a U.S. citizen.

"The climate is really different," said Jennifer Lee, a clinical assistant professor of law at Temple University and co-legal director of the Sheller Center for Social Justice. "It's much harder to advise clients that coming forward won't have real repercussions."

She has represented immigrants in wage-theft cases — in Pennsylvania, workers lose as much as $32 million a month to employers who underpay or don't pay.

Workplace laws apply to everyone, regardless of immigration status, but undocumented people may not want to risk stepping forward.

One client, Lee said, worked up to 60 hours a week as a cook in a nice restaurant, and was owed about $7,000 in back wages. He had strong evidence on his side, Lee said, but recently dropped his case, fearing it could expose him to immigration authorities.

The need to pass unseen trumps all. Even for those longing to contribute, like James, who was raised in an American missionary church in Ghana.

One of his multiple jobs was helping an elderly man suffering from dementia. The man's wife was so impressed with his attitude that she offered to fund his greatest dream — to attend college. James graduated with honors from Camden County College.

But promising applications for good jobs sank once his status came up. And it doesn't look like that will change anytime soon.

"The story of an immigrant like my type is a bizarre one," James said. "It's been a tough journey. But I'm still here."