U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement under President Donald Trump is changing how it effectively prioritizes immigrants for deportation. Immigrant rights advocates in New Mexico say these days, anyone can become a target. That unpredictability is forcing people to make some hard choices.
After coming to the United States illegally more than two decades ago, Alejandro Cano is being deported to Mexico. He’s been working around the clock to get ready to report to the processing center in El Paso. His living room in Albuquerque’s South Valley is nearly empty. "This house," he said, "I bought this house. And I remodeled this whole house. It was a really old house."
Cano owns a small landscaping and construction business here, owns this home and pays taxes on both. He said after years of regular check-ins with ICE—and after shelling out $1,600 to unsuccessfully attempt to renew his yearly work permit—he went to his most recent ICE appointment, and they told him he had to go.
His 5-year-old daughter Serenity was born in the U.S. and is a citizen here, Cano said, and his biggest worry is making sure that she also has Mexican citizenship before they leave. "Some moments, she’s willing to go to Mexico and all that," he said, "and then she started getting nervous and getting confused, no?"
Without that dual citizenship, Serenity will have a harder time getting health care, education and other public services in Mexico. Cano has sole custody of her, and there’s no one here to care for her, he said, so it’s like she’s getting thrown out of the U.S., too. There are thousands of families like this in New Mexico, according to the Migrant Policy Institute: Unauthorized immigrants who are the parents of a child who’s a U.S. citizen.
Serenity wanders into the living room while we’re talking and wants to take a turn on the mic. "And I’m going to Mexico, and I want to stay there forever," she said. "Because immigration? Immigration said that we need to go to Mexico. That’s why we have everything packed up."
It used to be that ICE had a policy of prioritizing the deportation of people who threaten national security and public safety. Next on the list were people who had just been caught crossing the border. Under President Donald Trump, the agency did away with that policy. Instead, agents can pick up anyone with a criminal history, even if the offenses are minor.
In Cano’s case, when he first got here decades ago, he would get deported and then return. And more than 11 years ago, he racked up a few DWI's. But those days are behind him, he said, he did his time, and for more than a decade, he’s been sober. "I’m just happy for all those years I’ve been here," he said. "I met beautiful people. I’ve been living these last years so happy, the best time of my life."
Rachel LaZar is the executive director of El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos. "Having a parent that has to make that heart-wrenching decision of leaving a place that they call home, that their children call home, where people have put roots into their community—that’s a position that no parent should be in," she said.
LaZar said there’s a proud legacy of fighting this kind of thing in this part of the country. "That is what targeting for deportation is, right? A very severe form of persecution," she said. "And New Mexicans do not stand by idly when our neighbors are being targeted."
A spokesperson for ICE refused to be interviewed about how shifting policy is affecting their work or why people are being deported after having worked with the agency for years.
Maxaira Baltazar, the deputy consul of Mexico in Albuquerque, says they’re seeing ICE target more people during regular check-in appointments. She said added uncertainty about who might be deported and when breeds fear. "We’re trying for people not to be scared because, fortunately, there are many resources, there are many tools, that we can put at their disposal," she said. "But at the same time, we don’t want to wait to the very last moment when maybe there isn’t anything that we can do."
And now, when agents are looking for someone with a criminal background, if other undocumented immigrants are in the area, Baltazar said ICE is deporting them, too. So people should make plans in advance, she advised. "If you’re detained, who’s going to take care of your children? Who’s going to take of your property here in the U.S.? Does anyone know what documents you have where they are?"
Demand has increased exponentially from people in New Mexico seeking dual citizenship for their kids, she noted.
Baltazar said people need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
The consulate is offering attorneys to Mexican nationals in New Mexico who want an assessment of their situation, as well as Know Your Rights workshops and other resources for making informed decisions about the future.