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Buffalo's immigrant community fears crackdown by Trump

There are those who still live in the shadows,  fearing detection, wondering if they'll wake up to federal agents knocking at their door.

But here in Buffalo, there also is a community of undocumented immigrants living openly among us, working in stores and restaurants, paying taxes and even serving in the military.

They are people, often entire families, who are well-known to immigration authorities. But over the years, federal agents have deemed them low-priority deportation cases.

Now, even those immigrants worry about a knock at the door.

"There are people who had the expectation that they could come out of the shadows," said Anne E. Doebler,  an immigration lawyer in Buffalo. "That's changing."

By some estimates, there are more than 5,000 undocumented immigrants in Buffalo and the surrounding area and, when you talk to people on the front lines of the debate here, people like Doebler, you hear about the fear and uncertainty in these communities.

Immigrant advocates see increased enforcement following Trump's order

They know President Trump's executive orders on immigration are being reworked, but they also remember his promise of a crackdown.

Perhaps even more important, they read and hear about the high-profile immigration raids taking place in other parts of the country, and the reports that many of those being arrested are people without prior criminal records.

Closer to home, two raids last week by U.S. Border Patrol agents, one in Hamburg, the other on Grand Island, resulted in the arrests of 30 men, many  from Mexico and Honduras. Among the 30, one was a convicted sex offender who previously had been deported.

Immigration advocates say the raids are a sign that Trump's agenda has emboldened federal agents frustrated with the "prosecutorial discretion" exercised by the Obama administration.

"Now, it is much more likely that any undocumented immigrant might be deported or at least detained," said Karen M. Andolina Scott, executive director of Journey's End, a local refugee assistance center.

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The size of the undocumented immigrant community in Buffalo is difficult to measure, but the Fiscal Policy Institute, a New York-based think tank, estimated the number at more than 5,000 as part of a recent analysis on immigrants likely to apply for drivers licenses in New York State. The group cited data from the Center for Migration in New York and other organizations that track undocumented immigrants.

The fear is real enough that some families here are looking to Canada as a possible safe haven,  immigration advocates say.

Viewed as more immigrant friendly, Canada is nevertheless difficult to access, physically and legally, for undocumented immigrants who landed first in Buffalo. And yet, there are reports from Toronto health officials of immigrants in need of medical care after smuggling themselves across the border in cars and trucks.

"There is certainly a fear in these communities and, for some people, that means fleeing to Canada," said Matthew K. Borowski, an immigration lawyer.

Out west, where the U.S.-Canada border is less secure, Canadian officials say immigrants are making their way into the country in large numbers.

In Manitoba, a refugee agency helped 91 immigrants who, between last year's election and this year's inauguration, endured the freezing winter weather and walked across the border.

For many immigrants, it was not Trump's promise of increased arrests and deportations that gave them pause, but rather his temporary ban on travel.

The ban targeted immigrants from seven predominately Muslim nations - Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia - but also ensnared valid green card and visa holders when it went into effect this month, before being halted by the courts.

The result was confusion, and some travelers were detained or turned away when they arrived here. Almost to a person, lawyers are now advising their clients not to travel at all.

"Whether you're from one of the seven countries or not, everyone is nervous," said Julie Kruger, an immigration lawyer in Buffalo.

For Kruger, the human consequences of any ban could be found in the local families who would wait even longer to reunite with loved ones trying to make their way here. Every day, she works with parents who are waiting for children and spouses who are waiting for partners.

After a series of legal setbacks, the Trump administration is reworking the travel ban, but there's an expectation among immigration advocates that, ultimately, refugees  still will find it hard to come here.

"You face never seeing your spouse or children again, or making a decision to return to that country," said Andolina Scott. "Being a mother, I can't imagine making that decision. It's beyond words."

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At the Grant Street Neighborhood Center, a drop-in community gathering spot, manager Keith Kristich sees a lot of immigrant children. They include a teenage girl from West Africa who is waiting for her sister and two brothers to join her in Buffalo.

Even though she's not from one of the seven countries, Kristich said her family's reunification is on hold.

"When they talk about the ban devastating families, it's her sister and brothers they're talking about," he said.

Lawyers say the original ban also affected immigrants who are U.S. citizens,  many of them long-standing residents with a deep appreciation for the rights, protections and opportunities offered by the U.S.

"People are concerned and rightfully so," said immigration lawyer Matthew L. Kolken. "People from those seven countries have a spotlight on them and who wants to feel that heat."

Even before Trump's orders took effect, lawyers in Buffalo were preparing for the day when local immigrants would find themselves arrested and in need of legal help.

At an organizational meeting earlier this month, 49 lawyers with diverse backgrounds and practices agreed to provide pro bono legal services to anyone in need. They also formed a legal "rapid response team."

"Every lawyer there said the same thing, 'We're a nation of immigrants,'" said Doebler. "It was a great outpouring of support."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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