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Julian Gill/DRC

Immigrants face ‘what if’ scenarios

Local immigrant advocates say Denton's Hispanic community is fearful of talk surrounding tightened deportation policies in Washington. But so far, that fear has only translated to "what if" questions among many unauthorized immigrants in the city.

Several weeks ago, President Donald Trump signed an executive order threatening to cut federal funding from local jurisdictions that try to "shield" unauthorized immigrants from deportation.

State lawmakers have filed bills that would give local police departments more authority when it comes to deporting immigrants. And last week, the Department of Homeland Security released documents that outline Trump's desire for expanded deportation enforcement around the country.

In Denton, about 1,200 people still pack Immaculate Conception Catholic Church for Spanish-language Mass at noon on Sundays, a number that church officials say is typical for that service. And officials at Opening Doors International Services, a local nonprofit that has provided legal counseling for predominantly Hispanic immigrants since 2003, said the agency has been handling the same amount of clients as any other election year.

Sandra Guima, a caseworker at Opening Doors, said she's not aware of any clients who have recently been deported or voluntarily left the country. Her clients are simply preparing for a "what if" situation.

"There are DACA recipients who are calling me every day, asking about what's going on -- 'Are they going to stop the law?'" she said.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is a program implemented by Homeland Security in 2012 that has allowed immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as minors to receive a two-year period of deferred action from deportation. During that time, they also could become eligible for a work permit.

Whether Trump officially decides to overturn the program remains to be seen. But Guima said she's been more careful with clients who want to apply for DACA for the first time.

"We don't know if [the government] is going to be using their information against them or not," she said.

Officials at Opening Doors said the agency handles about 200 clients per month, and about 80 percent of those are from Denton, assistant case manager Daniela Acosta said. Roughly 90 percent of the clients are Hispanic, Acosta said.

Guima said unauthorized immigrants also have been requesting a specific letter that allows someone other than a parent to care for their children. She's been referring people requesting the letter to their country's consulate, she said.

"It's like an official permit for another person to take [their children] to school or to the doctor or live with them for a short period," Guima said. "But I have been having those calls like three or four times every day asking for that letter ... just in case, just to be prepared."

The Pew Research Center estimated 475,000 unauthorized immigrants lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 2014. But the exact number of undocumented immigrants in Denton is unclear.

Rudy Rodriguez, a past president of the League of United Latin American Citizens and a former Denton school board member, has been trying to organize a support group for Denton's immigrant families and children. The group, which has its first meeting today at 5 p.m. at Zera Coffee Co., was created as a response to the mounting uncertainty surrounding immigration laws, he said.

"It's not affiliated with churches; it's not political," Rodriguez said. "It's just a concerned group of local citizens who are community-based and who have special care and compassion for the immigrant community -- people who want to do whatever is necessary to be of support."

Rodriguez said he hasn't heard of any local immigrants who have been deported. Much of the fear and uncertainty in the community has been anecdotal, he said.

But Denton city leaders historically have been accepting of Hispanic immigrants, Rodriguez said. As evidence, he cited the designated day laborer area on the corner of Fort Worth Drive and Carroll Boulevard, as well as the friendship cities agreement with the Mexican mining city of Múzquiz.

"We have an enlightened community. People are very embracing and are very accepting," Rodriguez said. "Our community, in terms of leadership values, is still evolving."

During a forum on Feb. 16 at Denton City Hall, Police Chief Lee Howell assured residents that the department's enforcement policies have not changed since Trump took office. He said local officers will not actively seek to arrest immigrants who are in the country illegally. That is a job for federal deportation authorities, he said.

Close to 150 people packed the council chambers for the Feb. 16 meeting. Howell faced dozens of "what if" questions -- asked in Spanish and English -- about the department's role when it comes to identifying and arresting unauthorized immigrants. Howell maintained the department seeks to investigate crimes, not a person's citizenship status.

Many conservative political leaders, such as Denton County Republican Party Chairwoman Lisa Hendrickson, emphasize that unauthorized immigrants are in the country illegally, and they are essentially ignoring the law by staying here.

"I think the most maddening part of this for me: People keep saying 'immigrant,'" she said. "You're not an immigrant. You're here illegally. An immigrant is someone who came here and followed the rules."

Like many Republican leaders, Hendrickson believes allowing unauthorized immigrants into the country automatically attracts a criminal element.

"They are not immigrants; they are illegals. They are criminals whether you like it or not," she said. "I am all for legal immigration -- follow the rules, obey the laws. What I don't understand is people who just assume that it's OK to break the law."

Many Hispanics in the community don't inquire about other people's citizenship status, longtime business owner Lupe Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez, who owned Popo & Lupe Hair Styling Center for 47 years before closing the shop last year, also serves as the Hispanic ministries coordinator at Immaculate Conception.

While she said many parishioners are worried about the future of immigration law, she said immigrants are mostly appreciated "for what they are and who they are" at the church.

"You know, their work ethic and their tenacity to really work and take care of their family -- not knowing what comes tomorrow -- it's admirable," she said. "And they live their lives as happily as they can."

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @juliangillmusic.