At 6:30 a.m., three and a half hours before a free legal clinic was set to start at the Mexican Consulate in Austin, a dozen people were already camped outside. They huddled in blankets, gripping hot cups of McDonald’s coffee. By 10 a.m., more than 50 had arrived.
Among those waiting were longtime friends Magdalena Tercero, 30, and Heather Hoff, 33. Soon, they would sign a form giving Hoff power of attorney over Tercero’s children. The form would go into effect immediately, but it would only be needed if Tercero, who is undocumented, were deported.
The paperwork would be “difficult to sign,” said Tercero. “But you’re protecting your children so that CPS (Child Protective Services) doesn’t take them. My biggest fear is that they’ll be adopted.”
These days, Tercero leaves home only to walk her 4-year-old daughter to school. Her two older kids have asked her not to join them; they’re scared immigration authorities will arrest Tercero.
Support between the two women has always gone both ways. Hoff’s husband helped Tercero’s gain a construction license. Tercero’s husband, in turn, didn’t hesitate to loan them thousands. Their youngest children are best friends. Tercero babysat Hoff’s infant daughter for months after Hoff returned to work.
At the clinic, they planned to take that support even further. The contract would make it official: If Tercero and her husband were deported, Hoff, a U.S. citizen, would care for their children. She would have power to make medical decisions for them, to enroll them in school and to allow them to work or apply for a driver’s license, among other responsibilities.
Hoff laughed it off, though, watching her son obediently follow Tercero’s daughter as she hopped from bench to bench outside the consulate — a blond boy dressed in green playing with a brown-haired girl dressed all in pink. Three extra kids in the house “would be a little more hectic,” Hoff said. “But [Tercero’s kids] are much easier than ours.”
After the five-day operation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in early February, which resulted in 680 arrests outside schools, homes and grocery stores across the country, undocumented parents have begun to assign legal caretakers for their children. Power of attorney forms, as they’re called, are not new, but in the past month demand has skyrocketed. They’re meant as temporary fixes, a way to limit the chaos after a parent’s arrest or deportation so that children aren’t left completely on their own.
These short, notarized agreements represent a parent’s worst fears. But close friends and family are stepping up — pledging, as Hoff did, to care for their children.
As kids scrambled around their feet at the legal clinic, many parents expressed a kind of relief.
“Now I have some control,” said Damariz PÃ©rez. The oldest of her three children, 18-year-old Quetzal Zamora, has agreed to take care of the others in the event of PÃ©rez’s deportation. Standing next to Zamora, Perez’s 5-year-old son whined for his mom; he meets with therapists for his autism almost daily. “It’s a lot, when you think about it,” Zamora said. “But I think I could do it.”
It’s a situation thousands of families have already faced. From 2003 to 2013, ICE deported up to 925,000 parents of U.S.-born children. In 2011, Race Forward, a liberal think tank, found that roughly 5,000 children with detained or deported parents had been placed in foster care nationwide — an alarming possibility for the already-overwhelmed Texas foster care system.
ICE shifted policy in 2013, issuing a directive to safeguard parent-child rights; it could also exercise discretion in removing parents of minors. The agency has continued to deport parents, however. According to a 2016 congressional report, ICE deported nearly 15,500 parents of U.S.-born children in the second half of 2015.
ICE will allow parents to make arrangements for their children “as practicable,” the agency said in a statement, offering them access to consular officials, lawyers and family members to help them through the process. Adelina Pruneda, an ICE spokesperson, told the Observer that parents must decide where their children will go next.
“Is it ICE’s responsibility where the parents leave their children?” Pruneda said. “That’s a decision made by the parent. … I’m a parent, so my kids are going to go where I go.”
Powers of attorney may stand as safeguards for immigrants’ children, especially in single-parent households. But these arrangements pose some risk, as hastily chosen guardians could abuse or neglect children in their care.
Tom Ausley, who practices family law in Austin, also worries that the forms won’t hold up legally. The agreements first entered the Texas Family Code so that soldiers deployed to Iraq could make plans for their kids, he said. Immigrants facing deportation have made similar use of them for years. But the statute allows only immediate relatives to assume responsibility for a child; friends or distant relatives aren’t mentioned. Attorneys have tried to draft forms that will work for these relationships, hoping that schools and hospitals will accept them. That leaves many families in a state of uncertainty. “There is not a legal remedy to every problem,” Ausley said.
The plans must go beyond legal documents, said Luis Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin: Kids should know where to find money. They should know who would pick them up. They should know who to call in their parent’s home country. These agreements may prevent chaos, but they cannot stave off a terrible choice.
“Take my child, leave my child — that is simply putting parents in the most agonizing position any parent could be in,” Zayas said.
Some children choose for themselves. Alicia Castillo had a plan for her only son, who was born in the United States: If she was deported, they would move to Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. She imagined driving him to the international bridge for school. Her sister, a U.S. citizen, had agreed to take him the rest of the way.
At 16, AndrÃ©s has his own plan. “No matter what happens, I’m not leaving Austin. I grew up here,” he said over the phone, with his mom listening beside him. Castillo picked up with a shaky voice. “He has his own thoughts,” she said. “He was born here, and I have to respect what he wants. It’s his right.”
Aweek after their consular visit, Hoff drove Tercero to another free immigration clinic — their third in a month, this one at a middle school. By now they’d honed their routine: Arrive hours early, bring water. Slowly they were making a plan. Even so, Tercero was unsure what she’d do if she were deported.
Her husband wanted their kids to go with them; Tercero thought they should stay. “Their future would be better here. … I don’t know.” Later that day, she changed her mind. “They’re definitely coming with us.” Later that week, she’d flip again.
The Texas Here to Stay clinic soon opened. Hoff and Tercero were among the first in the cafeteria, where international flags hung from the ceiling. Volunteers speaking Spanish, Farsi, Arabic and Urdu asked attendees about their lives: “When did you come to this country and why?” The answers might lead to some form of legal protection. The friends sat together at a lunch table and peered at new documents, waiting to see.
This article originally appeared on The Texas Observer.