For some weeks now, I've been writing about our effort to help Camilla, who illegally entered the United States more than a decade ago and who is now, like so many undocumented immigrant workers, living in fear and uncertainty.
She came her to provide for her family, who could not find enough work In Mexico to provide for themselves, and at mid-life, she sacrificed everything to work seven days a week, often in grueling physical labor outdoors in summer and winter for little pay to send the money she earns home.
She lives in a tiny trailer with other farm workers, spends nothing on herself.
It would be devastating for her and her family to be forced out of America now, without any path for redemption or security, or even just punishment. And it would be cruel.
For many people – I hear from them every day – this is only just and fair.
Camilla came her illegally, they say, she should leave. Many people think she is a threat and a parasite deserving neither of sympathy or support. "You should not be doing this," one woman messaged me from Montana, adding this is why she voted for the current President.
According to her Facebook page, this woman rescues stray cats whenever she can find them, but not people, and rejects the idea that this is a contradiction. And this is where we are in America now, so angry and divided, compassion and mercy considered almost traitorous.
I feel differently, obviously, and so does Maria. We have twice taken Camilla to lawyers, and she now has legal representation, should she need it. And she might well, there is no path open to her. Things change, judges issue rulings, Congress passes laws, Presidents change their minds. I told her not to give up hope, I certainly have not.
But the question remains, how can we help her now? She has a number to call, she knows her rights, she has been given the best available advice. Is the on her own now, or are their further steps to take on her behalf?
I'm uneasy with where the lawyers left it: lay low, be quiet, get lucky. Is this the best our country can do?
Every day in the twilight world of the undocumented, there are reports of raids, arrests, deportations. At grocery stories, in court houses, hospitals and on farms. Their world is shrinking in a cloud of fear, they have stopped going to doctors, emergency rooms, malls, they have stopped reporting abuse and rape and other crimes to the police. They are afraid to drive on major roads, get their cars repaired, visit their doctors for treatment, go to the post office, shop at Wal-Mart or visit their friends or families.
There is nothing for them to return to, no money, jobs, homes.
When I hear the rattle in her car or see the smoke coming out of the exhaust, I fear for Camilla. She might be a traffic stop away from having her live ruined and upended. She has a lover she has lived with for years, and dreads the idea of them being separated. He runs when he sees a police man having coffee in a convenience store.
Since November, I joined the ACLU's Grassroots Resistance Movement, created in part to help organize local efforts to protect people like Camilla, and to communicate with local police departments about their policies and thoughts about how to handle the undocumented when they encounter them, or when ICE agents come looking for them. I am learning about rights, statues, and
I wish to legally help Camilla find a way through this. She is honest about her life and status, she never lies about it, denies responsibility, or asks others to bail her out. It was me who suggested seeing a lawyer. She is prepared to accept responsibility and do what needs to be done to gain some legal status, she has been paying taxes for years.
The ACLU asks us to meet with local police chiefs and ask them about their immigration policies, but I am not sure this is a good idea. There are three different police agencies operating in my area, which is typical in rural areas. State police, county sheriffs, and town and village police.
The state police in New York have said they will not take action against undocumented immigrants they encounter unless the people they stop are wanted for serious crimes. The sheriff and local police have no stated policy, and to my knowledge, no policy at all. Many of these people work on farms, and are essential to the agricultural economy here. The police and the farmers are close, they know each other and work together, their families are often entwined.
In my county we all know undocumented workers, know how important they are to our economy, how hard they work, how little problems they have ever caused. They take jobs local people do not want and do not even apply for and work in sometimes brutish labor. They are central to our agricultural system.
Police here are low key, they do not generally look for trouble beyond the obvious and the normal. They have no desire to hurt farmers. The chief here is respected and approachable. The immigration police – the ICE – are something else, by all reports, they are being aggressive in unprecedented and unaccountable ways.
If I raise this issue with local chiefs, then they might feel forced to formulate a policy, or seek public discussion. And I might not be pleased with the results. A good friend suggested I let sleeping dogs lie, if they are not aggressively pursuing undocumented immigrants, or raiding farms, then why spark a discussion at all? The ACLU says the reason to let them know people care and are paying attention.
Otherwise, any single officer can do anything he or she wishes to do.
I was a police reporter for some years, I have respect for the police and have always been able to communicate with them. I do know that public attention matters. Like all of us, we behave differently if we know people care about what we do.
I'm not looking for trouble or making any demands, I'd like to let them know that there are people here who are concerned with this issue and would like to talk to them about it in a low-key way. Is such a thing possible in America any longer? I don't really know.
In the meantime, I will go slowly, think on it and look for ways I can think of to be helpful to Camilla. One way would be to help her get her car fixed before some alert young trooper hears the engine sound her old car makes.