Meridian restaurant workers from Mexico fear deportation: ‘Everything’s changed’

Fear of deportation looms over Patricia, Minerva and Leticia, who have shared a home for many years in Idaho. They entered the country illegally and have worked at the same Meridian restaurant for periods ranging from six to 15 years.
Fear of deportation looms over Patricia, Minerva and Leticia, who have shared a home for many years in Idaho. They entered the country illegally and have worked at the same Meridian restaurant for periods ranging from six to 15 years.

Three women from Mexico have worked together in a restaurant in Meridian, sharing a trailer home in Meridian, for several years.

When one of them was abused by her husband, who later was imprisoned and deported, her two friends supported her. When she needs child care during shifts at the restaurant, they are like second parents to her son.

Now they hide together in their home, fearful of deportation. President Donald Trump has issued orders to increase enforcement of U.S. immigration laws and step up deportation of immigrants here illegally.

“I came here to get ahead, not get in trouble in this country,” said Minerva, 40, who asked that her last name not be used, as did her two housemates.

The women, who are from Colima, a state on Mexico’s western coast, are among the estimated 45,000 people in Idaho who came to the U.S. illegally and make up an estimated 5 percent of the Idaho’s workforce.

The owner of an auto dealership in Idaho Falls was detained Tuesday and set for deportation, a TV station there reported. KIFI/KIDK said the man’s girlfriend reported that he was detained when he went to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office to change his address, something he had done every year for several years.

Coming to America

Minerva and 35-year-old Leticia crossed the border together in Arizona about 16 years ago. It didn’t take long for them to settle in Idaho, where they felt safer than in Mexico, which has “a lot of crime,” Minerva said.

Patricia, 25, crossed the border into Texas seven years ago. She brought her then 3-year-old son, who was born in Mexico.

Minerva and Leticia said their feeling of safety is now gone, replaced by fear that they will be sent back to a country they no longer know.

“We’re afraid because that country is really ugly,” Minerva said.

As the women watched the election results come in, they began to cry. “We started panicking,” Minerva said.

‘Can’t sleep now’

All three women are in the U.S. illegally.

Their employer checked their Social Security numbers shortly before Trump took office, found the numbers were fake, and told them they would be let go in April if they did not find a way to overcome the problem.

The federal government does not require all employers to use its E-Verify system to check whether an employee is authorized to work in the U.S. E-Verify lets employers compare employees’ Form I-9s with Social Security and other records to make sure information matches.

Arizona and Mississippi have made E-Verify mandatory for all employers. Idaho requires only state government agencies to use the system, which is free. Per capita, Idaho has the sixth-lowest number of employers using E-Verify.

1,902 Idaho employers enrolled in E-Verify as of Dec. 31, 2016, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

“It makes me sad, because I’ve been working for them for 15 years, and because of what’s going on, I won’t be able to work,” Leticia said. “And I’m scared to go to Mexico, because there’s so much violence.”

The women said they began to prepare about a year ago for a situation like this. They suspected Trump could win the election and started to set aside more of their paychecks so they would have cash in an emergency.

“I’m very grateful for this country, for the 16 years I’ve been in this country,” Minerva said. “But, obviously, you can’t sleep now because you’re thinking about the danger.”

‘Everything’s changed’

After their employer discovered they were working without valid Social Security numbers, they made an appointment with Boise immigration lawyer Jordan Moody, of Wilner & O’Reilly.

“I’m getting a lot of calls from people who are just scared,” Moody told the Statesman. “I'm hoping that law-enforcement agencies will reach out to the Hispanic community especially to say, ‘Here’s where we stand, and you can work with us,’ or, ‘Hey, we’re going to deport you. ... If you report being a victim of a crime, we’re still going to deport you.’”

Moody said he is concerned that immigrants who entered the country illegally will be “a lot more apprehensive toward police officers about reporting crimes.”

The new policies do not affect one federal program where reporting a crime to police is particularly relevant: the “U visa” program, which allows certain noncitizen crime victims who lack immigrant status to remain in the U.S. legally when they cooperate with law enforcement. Because of the abuse by her husband, Patricia qualifies for the U visa.

But there is no clear path forward for her two friends. And without their support, Patricia does not see a path forward for herself in the U.S., either. She said she cannot afford to pay the cost of their trailer — more than $700 a month — on her own, and she can’t afford child care for her son, who is now 10 years old.

The women said they do not know what to do.

“I’m done. I’m tired,” Leticia said.

“When Obama was in office, we were happy and we could think about a future,” Patricia said. “But now, with what’s happening, well, everything’s changed.”

Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448, @audreydutton

Sven Berg: 208-377-6275, @SvenBerg51

Related stories from Idaho Statesman