As election results began pouring in Tuesday night showing Republican candidate Donald Trump with a surprising lead, Sheridan Aguirre received a phone call from his 10-year-old brother.
He was worried that Trump would win the presidency and deport his family members, said Aguirre, who is an immigrant and works for the immigrant advocacy group United We Dream.
“He called me crying, and I told him it would be OK,” Aguirre said, recalling that he was trying to calm his brother. “Unfortunately, I have not yet called him to let him know that Trump won.”
Like Aguirre’s family, the millions of unauthorized immigrants in the United States now fear what lies ahead after Trump’s surprise victory in the presidential election. The president-elect has pushed for the strongest immigration enforcement actions in recent history, including “deportation forces” to remove all of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country and a wall along the border with Mexico.
“A lot of people have been asking what does this mean?” said Alejandro Caceres, an immigration organizer for the Austin-based group Grassroots Leadership. “Does this mean we start preparing for mass deportations? For people fleeing the country? … We don’t know what happens next and we don’t know how safe we feel right now.”
Throughout an 18-month campaign, Trump described his immigration policies only in vague terms. But immigrant rights groups, which see many of the policies as anti-immigrant, say they expect Trump to follow through on his proposals, including the “deportation forces.”
“If we take him at his word, he has said he will create a police force to round up every (unauthorized) immigrant in the country. It’s the only policy platform he’s talked about,” said Cristina Parker, an immigration program director with Grassroots Leadership. “We’re talking about people dragging you out of your home.”
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said Wednesday there would not be mass deportations in Trump’s presidency.
Bill Beardall, executive director of the Equal Justice Center, said many of the questions about how Trump’s administration would tackle the immigration issue are still in the air and will remain so until after January when the president-elect starts implementing his policies.
Until then, Beardall said, his group will work to inform immigrants about their rights, which do not change with the election of a new president. He said the center will also work to “keep the community informed about policies as they evolve” and will work to “debunk myths and probably exaggerated fears that may circulate” in the run-up to Trump taking office.
Immigration advocates are also grappling with how to handle enrollment for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program started under President Barack Obama. The program provides temporary deportation relief and a work permit for unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the country as children.
Trump has said he would do away with the program but millions of immigrants have already received its benefits. Advocates worry that under Trump, the federal government could access the information from the program to track them for deportation. The federal government has said it would not share that information with immigration authorities and legal experts believe an attempt to do that would be unsuccessful.
In the coming months, unauthorized immigrants will have to decide whether the benefits of the program outweigh the risk of the federal government having their information, and will look to advocacy groups for advice.
Immigrant advocacy groups are scrambling to come up with a concrete answer to whether immigrants should still apply for the program. But in a stark contrast from earlier this year, they are not ruling out discouraging people from applying.
Trump’s election also has hit immigrants on a personal level. Immigrant rights groups say their members feel unsafe in public. Trump’s victory, they say, showed his attitudes toward unauthorized immigrants are not a fringe part of society but are shared by a large part of the country.
“We’re living in an environment where Trump pretty handily won for president in the U.S.,” Caceres said. “We have to recognize that it’s not the best time for us.”
Aguirre said he worries about his mother, who was hoping to apply for an expanded deferred action program proposed by Obama, and his young brother. In the months leading up to the election, he said, kids at school started bullying him and saying he was going to be deported.
Aguirre’s brother is a U.S. citizen.