Above: Allison Davenport with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center talks to a crowd of undocumented residents about their constitutional rights during a forum at Sacred Heart Church in Merced. (Photo by Hannah Esqueda)
By Hannah Esqueda
MERCED, Calif. — Dozens of individuals gathered inside the Sacred Heart Church Community Hall during a stormy afternoon this past Sunday, with the swirling winds and dark clouds outside serving as an ominous reminder of the political storm brewing for undocumented residents.
Though rarely, if ever, mentioned directly by name at the forum, speakers, organizers and attendees all spoke frequently of the change coming when Donald Trump takes office Jan. 20 and the possible consequences of a president-elect who ran an aggressively anti-immigrant campaign.
“It’s important to know your rights now that the president-elect plans changes,” said Allison Davenport, staff attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC). “The president-elect has the power to change DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] but other changes will be more difficult and will take time.”
Already Trump has announced plans to repeal DACA and deport millions of undocumented immigrants immediately after moving into the Oval Office. Such rhetoric has trickled down to many within the community, leaving undocumented residents of all ages with severe concerns over their safety.
To combat those fears, the Prevention Action Team, a coalition of organizations under Building Healthy Communities Merced, invited Davenport and others to speak with the community directly in Spanish and remind them of their legal rights.
“The most important thing to remember, is that you may not have papers, but you do have rights. You have the right to remain silent. You do not have to respond to immigration’s questions,” Davenport said. “If they ask where you were born or where you live, just say you’d prefer not to answer.”
The hope is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials will decide you are too much of a hassle and will not bother pursuing someone who shows they have a clear understanding of their legal rights, she said.
Throughout the two-hour forum, Davenport ran through a slew of similar scenarios, including what to do if immigration shows up at your house.
“ICE does not have the right to enter your house unless they have a warrant,” she said. “They may look through windows and under gates but they do not have a right to come inside.”
Many times, undocumented residents feel uncomfortable invoking their rights or standing up to officials in English, in which case Davenport said she recommends individuals carry a card listing their rights in English and Spanish. That way, if they encounter an immigration official, they can merely hand over the card and it will be recognized as them exercising their constitutional right to remain silent.
“It’s important not to be afraid or intimidated. Just hand them the card and they will know aren’t going to answer them,” she said.
While Davenport’s advice was meant to be general in scope, she did address multiple questions from the audience including concerns from residents over criminal records, DACA and what they should do if they are undocumented but have young children who are natural-born U.S. citizens.
The latter is a common concern for many in the community, and Davenport said it’s important to establish a plan of action in case parents are picked up by immigration. Parents of families without documentation are encouraged to form a custody plan with relatives or close friends and establish it with proper documentation if possible, she said.
While criminal records should be handled on a case-by-case basis, Davenport said its important for undocumented residents to understand the difference between felonies, misdemeanors and infractions such as traffic tickets. The former is much more serious while the other two shouldn’t cause as much concern regarding immigration status.
A lot of attention was also paid to the DACA program, and Davenport advised individuals to refrain from applying or renewing their application if at all possible. Since the approval process takes up to eight months, many individuals wouldn’t be approved before the next president takes office and would be better off looking for alternatives, she said.
Organizers also reminded residents that they should not be discouraged from seeking medical help, as hospitals and clinics will not turn you away based on immigration status. Medi-Cal programs with benefits for the undocumented are also safe from changing under the new president since they are state-run, Davenport said.
Lawmakers in Sacramento are working hard to protect the undocumented and will be looking for ways to expand resources rather than eliminate them, she said.
That message of encouragement was repeated throughout the night as multiple speakers sought to calm fears and remind residents that they live in a community determined to protect them.
“Do not be afraid of the changes coming,” said Luis Avila, operations manager of the community hall and a leader with the Merced Organizing Project. “We have many people here willing to work with us and the church is here for many the community.”
Community advocate Arlette Flores agreed and said that she has hope for the community despite the election.
“There are numerous groups and individuals willing to work with us here,” she said. “BHC, MOP, the Parents Institute for Quality Education (PIQE) are all represented here and others are willing to help us.”
“We should not be afraid,” Flores continued. “There is hope here.”