A Family Discussion: How Undocumented Parents Prepare For The Worst With Their Children

Melrose Park family
A family in Melrose Park reviews an emergency plan in case one or both of the parents are detained or deported by federal immigration agents. Susie An / WBEZ
Melrose Park family
A family in Melrose Park reviews an emergency plan in case one or both of the parents are detained or deported by federal immigration agents. Susie An / WBEZ

A Family Discussion: How Undocumented Parents Prepare For The Worst With Their Children

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

An important piece of paper used to hang on the refrigerator in Irma and Rolando’s apartment in Melrose Park. The paper gave detailed instructions to the couple’s three children on what to do in case of an emergency, but they were not talking about who to call in case of a fire or what number to dial for poison control. 

The paper told the children what to do if their parents are detained by federal immigration agents and possibly deported. The family recently sat down around the kitchen table to update their contingency plan. 

The parents are originally from Mexico and part of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. But their children were born here, they said, and that presents them with a host of logistical problems that have become more immediate as President Donald Trump pushes an aggressive deportation strategy

The possibility of a raid or being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents is not new to undocumented immigrants in the Chicago area. But many organizations that work with immigrants said there’s recently been heightened confusion and fear among families in which the parents are undocumented and the children are natural citizens, so they are putting together plans to handle everything from who picks up the kids from school to who pays bond if they’re detained. 

Reyna Wences, an organizer with Organized Communities Against Deportations, said she has given numerous workshops to immigrants to help them understand their rights. She said attendance has increased significantly in the past few months.

“The first thing we’ve been telling people is memorize a relative’s or a friend’s number that you know will activate your support network,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently called for hiring 10,000 more immigration agents and expediting deportations that are not required to go before an immigration judge. 

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has vowed there would be no mass deportations, but the Trump administration’s tough talk on immigration has forced Irma and Rolando to confront hard questions they previously never discussed with their children.

Dinner table discussion

Hanging outside the front door to Irma and Rolando’s modest basement apartment is a sign that says, “ICE FREE ZONE.” 

Irma and Rolando, who asked not to have their last names used because of their immigration status, said they moved to the country more than 15 years ago, with much of that time in west suburban Melrose Park. Latinos made up nearly 70 percent of the population in Melrose Park in 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. 

The parents sat at the kitchen table and snacked on cucumbers and fruit before dinner with their three children — Nathaniel, 15; Betzabel, 13; and Mabel, 4. 

Irma said she has been active for many years with the West Suburban Action Project, also known as PASO, which is an immigration advocacy group. She said she came up with the emergency plan two years ago as a precaution. 

But she said when she saw recent news reports, and considers families being displaced, the threat of being deported feels even closer.

“It is impossible to not feel nothing,” she said. 

Sitting at the kitchen table, Irma goes over the plan with her children. It’s a single sheet of paper that says in Spanish “family action plan,” and it includes important names and numbers. 

It designates a person who can pick up the children, a U.S. citizen who could potentially pay bond if Irma and Rolando get detained, an attorney who can provide legal aid, and a person who can handle financial matters.

Irma said she needs to designate someone with a power of attorney who can not only take temporary custody of her children, but also have access to their bank account and sell their cars and other property. She said she also needs to write up instructions for handling their personal items, like family photos and videos, in case the family has to move back to Mexico.

Irma and Rolanda said they have memorized phone numbers for people to call in case they are detained and unable to use a cellphone to search for contact information. 

Preparing for a knock on the door

Irma and Rolando said they want to simulate a detention scenario so they can practice their plan.

“One thing is to talk about it, another thing is to experience it,” Irma said.

The couple said they were told during a workshop that immigration agents can sometimes be aggressive when they visit a person’s home, so they want to have someone knock loudly on their door to get an idea of what it could mentally feel like if they are approached. 

Irma said Mabel runs to the door when she hears the doorbell, a habit that needs to stop. Irma said they don’t open the door for strangers. 

Rolando said he thinks the bigger challenge would be if one or both parents get detained while outside of the home.

“In case they stop me, I don’t know. Wait for God? If I gotta go, I gotta go,” he said.

Rolando said if one parent is deported to Mexico, the plan is for the whole family to eventually reunite there. He said he can’t afford to have the children live separately from him.

The couple’s oldest son, Nathaniel, said he would be reluctant to leave the U.S. because all of his friends are here and this is the only country he knows.

“I would have to go with them,” he said. “It would probably be for the best. They wouldn’t have to struggle paying for us, staying with somebody else.”

Irma said even with planning and practicing, she doesn’t think there’s anything that can really prepare a family for reality.

“Even if you’re prepared in the moment, there’s a lot of confusion and pain, especially the children and young people. They’re the ones who are most affected,” she said.

All in the family

Nathaniel said he vaguely remembers his mother explaining the emergency plan two years ago. But he does remember feeling worried.

“I wouldn’t be with (my parents). I’d be by myself with my little sisters, having to take care of them,” he said.

As the oldest, he said he feels the responsibility to be ready if a deportation were to happen.

“I’m supposed to be the good role model to show them what good things they are supposed to do and the bad things they aren’t supposed to do,” he said.

The family doesn’t bring up the topic too much with the youngest daughter, Mabel. But Irma said she suspects Mabel has an idea of what’s going on. 

Irma said Mabel told her how one of her pre-school teachers mentioned Trump’s birthday. Mabel said she did not want Trump to get birthday presents.

Irma recalled Mabel saying, “Because he is a bad person and he separates moms from their children.”

Susie An is a reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her at @soosieon.