Diana remembers the fear that grabbed her after a discussion she had with her mother, Eva, several weeks ago. They talked about what would happen if immigration agents came to their home and took Eva and her husband, who are undocumented immigrants. Eva told 15-year-old Diana to take her three younger siblings, who are all U.S. citizens, and live with their aunt.
“It got me really afraid thinking that — that it’s going to happen. It’s for sure going to happen,” said Diana, who requested we not use her or her mother’s real names. “And if it wasn’t going to happen, I was thinking in my mind, why is she doing this?”
Since Donald Trump won the presidential election, undocumented parents in Chicago and across the country have faced a question that no parent wants to consider: What will happen to their kids if they’re deported? Many parents have sought to designate a trusted friend or family member as the legal guardian of their children, but they have been uncertain of their options, many of which are imperfect, as Diana’s parents would discover.
Speaking in Spanish with the help of an interpreter, Eva said she began to think about creating a safety plan for her children when Trump entered the presidential race and campaigned with an aggressive deportation strategy. When Trump won, Eva said she began having sleepless nights, fearing that immigration agents could take her and her husband away from their children.
Eva and her husband visited a notary public to draw up an official letter stating that if they are unable to care for their kids, then her sister-in-law would assume full responsibility of the children. But Eva said she later began having doubts about the notarized letter.
“Maybe I should have seen an attorney,” she said.
Many parents and advocates have discovered there isn’t a readily available how-to guide for these kinds of situations. With distrust in government officials, some parents have turned to faith and community groups, but ultimately, many of these questions have ended up on the desk of Rebekah Rashidfarokhi. She is a family lawyer and director at Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, a legal aid group that helps connect poor people with pro-bono lawyers.
“This has really been kind of crushing, and we are trying to deal with it as best we can and to leverage the power of our volunteers,” Rashidfarokhi said. “Starting, I think, in early February, suddenly the vast majority of my phone calls and emails were about this issue. And this is not what I do on a normal day-to-day basis. I’m not an immigration attorney.”
Rashidfarokhi said her job changed overnight. Before, she helped kids whose parents fought over their custody. Now she trains people to help undocumented parents create safety plans for their kids.
Last month, Rashidfarokhi and other volunteer attorneys led a workshop at a Southwest Side church that she said drew nearly 1,000 people. She estimated they helped about 200 families fill out forms designating guardians for children. Rashidfarokhi said at the workshop, many parents brought up a popular misconception that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services would take custody of their children, if the parents are deported. Rashidfarokhi said that is not likely to happen.
Rashidfarokhi said she has advised most undocumented parents to take advantage of an Illinois state statute that allows short-term guardianship for children. She said parents just need to fill out a form that also needs to be signed by two witnesses, and the document is effective for a year.
“It’s a very flexible document,” she said. “It does not have to be notarized.”
But she warned that the document isn’t ironclad.
She said there have been cases where guardians have presented it to enroll a child in school or visit a minor who is hospitalized, and they have been turned away because those institutions weren’t familiar with the law.
Rashidfarokhi said that kind of confusion could be avoided through another option. Undocumented parents could petition a judge to assign what is called a “standby guardian,” but the recent political climate has made most undocumented parents fearful of authorities.
“I helped a family a few weeks ago prepare all the documents for a standby guardianship,” she said, “and they eventually decided not to go, not to follow through with it.”
Many parents’ safety plans go beyond simply assigning guardianship of their kids. Eva said she and her husband intend to have their four children join them in Mexico as quickly as possible, if they are deported. Eva said she has given her sister-in-law money to purchase airline tickets for the children.
She has also made an appointment at the Mexican Consulate in Chicago to apply for dual citizenship for each of the children so they can continue attending school in Mexico.
A spokesman for the consulate in Chicago said an unprecedented numbers of parents have been applying for dual citizenship for their children, and employees at the consulate will work weekends in May to handle the volume.
Diana said she hasn’t told her three younger siblings about her mother’s safety plan, hoping it will never be needed.
“Maybe if we are careful about our steps, we will be safe and together,” she said. She added that the family has drastically changed its daily routines, going out only rarely, and the children have been taught to carefully check who is at the door before opening it.
Still, she said that if the worst comes to pass, she’s ready to move to Mexico. She’s never set foot in that country, but she said she’d rather be there with her mom than in the U.S. alone.
Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @oyousef.