On June 28th, President Trump convened a roundtable at the White House that included victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. The event was part of the Administration’s push to pass several new immigration bills designed to, in Trump’s words, “close the dangerous loopholes exploited by criminals, gang members, drug dealers, killers, terrorists.” A regular theme of the Trump Administration’s messaging on immigration has been to present undocumented “bad hombres” as an immediate threat to the safety and cohesion of the American family unit.
But some of Trump’s immigration policies, in themselves, have endangered families across America. The stories below, of four mothers who have been targeted for deportation since January, show how. As the director of the Global Migration Project, at Columbia Journalism School, I spent the spring supervising a team of twelve journalists who sought to understand the evolution of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under President Trump. We began by assembling a database of enforcement activity: pulling in information from all fifty states on local raids, family separations, immigration-detention trends, and more. For three months, we scoured law-enforcement blotters, public ICE memos, local news sources, and social-media forums. We then spoke with individuals facing removal proceedings around the country, as well as their attorneys, employers, colleagues, spouses, and children.
We’ll be rolling out the results of related investigations in the coming months. But here, we’re sharing one trend that conflicts with Trump’s rhetorical focus on immigrants who “are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers.” In fact, his Administration’s agents are targeting, in large numbers, individuals for whom public-safety justifications for removal don’t apply. This includes a considerable number of women who have no criminal records and who are either the primary caretakers of young children, or the primary family breadwinners, or both. Four such cases are presented here.
While Barack Obama’s Administration deported more than three million people, with plenty of non-felons among them, the cases documented here reflect changes from the previous Administration’s enforcement priorities—mothers, for instance, who’d been picked up under Obama and qualified for temporary legal relief, only to face swift removal, or its threat, under the new Administration. These stories offer closeups of Trump-era immigration enforcement—including the words and images of families at their center.
This project was produced in collaboration with Adriana Loureiro Fernández, Micah Hauser, Shana Daloria, and Nicole Einbinder.
The Candy-Factory Worker
On the morning of April 5th, two days after Maribel Trujillo Diaz had visited her local ICE office in Fairfield, Ohio, for a routine appointment, she left her home to see a relative. As she walked, she was followed by ICE agents in a truck. They soon got out and arrested her. Her son, Oswaldo, got a call from someone who’d witnessed the scene, telling him to come quickly. He jumped on his bike, but when he arrived, ICE had already driven off with his mother.
Trujillo grew up in Hidalgo, Mexico, in the state of Michoacán, a region now beset by drug cartels. In 2002, when she crossed the border, she was pregnant with Oswaldo. She and her husband, Octavio, settled in Fairfield—a small city half an hour from Cincinnati—where some family members already lived. Trujillo found work in a poultry plant, and it was there, during a 2007 raid, that she had her first encounter with ICE. According to her attorney, Kathleen Kersh, of the Ohio-based Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, ICE arrested a hundred and sixty individuals after that raid, but Trujillo avoided deportation on account of her status as a mother.
In 2012, Trujillo filed for asylum. Life had become dangerous for her relatives back in Mexico; she told a court about how her brother had been kidnapped by members of a cartel called La Familia Michoacana. Other relatives, she said, were being threatened for refusing to join the group. In 2014, after two years of hearings, her claim was denied. Trujillo’s four children—fourteen-year-old Oswaldo, twelve-year-old Alexa, ten-year-old Gustavo, Jr., and three-year-old Daniela—were all U.S. citizens, and Trujillo was terrified of being separated from them. Her job at a candy factory provided the family with much of its income. Gustavo has medical conditions that make it difficult for him to work; Daniela, their youngest, experiences seizures.
In 2015, Trujillo’s daughter Alexa wrote a letter to Senator Sherrod Brown, of Ohio, begging him to help her mother. “It is not fair what you are doing to my mom. Why does she have to go to mexico she is not a criminal or a bad person,” Alexa wrote. “I’m real going to miss her more cause she is realy far away from me and my family. In the morning when I wake up I’m not goin to see her in bed.”
The family was granted a reprieve: ICE chose not to deport Trujillo. As long as she reported for routine check-ins with ICE, she was likely to avoid deportation. Last year, under the Obama Administration, she was granted a one-year work permit that would have expired this July. But within three months of Trump taking office agents picked her up.
In the days following Trujillo’s arrest, her case drew widespread attention. Rallies and protests were held in her name, led by friends and family, as well as religious leaders from across Ohio. The state’s most prominent politicians—not just Brown, a progressive Democrat, but also Senator Rob Portman, a Republican—sent personal requests to ICE asking for leniency for Trujillo. Ohio’s Republican Governor, John Kasich, told the press he did not want to see her deported.
Father Michael Pucke, Trujillo’s parish priest at St. Julie Billiart Catholic Church, in Hamilton, Ohio, visited Trujillo at the Butler County jail, where he prayed and read scripture with her. Pucke has known Trujillo for more than ten years. “She’s quiet, not someone who would stand out in a crowd, but was thoughtful and had deep faith,” he said. In the jail, he recalled, she was tired, frightened, and cold. “It’s in God’s hands,” she told him.
Trujillo asked Pucke to make sure her children did their homework. “That says something to me not only about a mother’s love but how important it was that her children take advantage of what they have in this country,” Pucke said. A few days after her arrest, Trujillo was transferred to La Salle, a detention center in Jena, Louisiana. On April 19th, she was deported to Mexico. Her daughter Alexa had sketched the scene two years earlier, at the end of her letter to Senator Brown; the picture featured Alexa and her siblings watching their mother fly off in a plane, a deportee.
Oregon has been home for as long as Alejandra Ruiz can remember. She wasn’t yet two years old in 1988, when her mother brought her and her older sister to the U.S. from Guatemala, fleeing that country’s civil war. The family lived in California for a short time, then settled in Portland, where her mother found work as a housekeeper.
Her mother applied for asylum upon arrival in the U.S., but her case was denied. The government issued a deportation order for Ruiz when she was still a toddler. Her mother never told her about the order—in fact, she did not find out she was undocumented until she was twenty-four-years old. Ruiz grew up thinking she was a U.S. citizen. Three years ago, Ruiz moved with her four kids to Beaverton, a suburb west of Portland. The streets were quiet and the children’s schools were nearby. Ruiz had a job at a senior-care facility, working twelve-hour overnight shifts.
Early on the morning of March 26th, ICE agents arrived at Ruiz’s house. She was still at work, but a neighbor called to tell her that law enforcement was knocking at her door; worried, she then called the local non-emergency number, to find out what was wrong. A little while later, an ICE agent called her back. He explained that she was the subject of a decades-old deportation order, Ruiz recalls. If she didn’t come to the local ICE office immediately, agents would return to arrest her. Ruiz arranged for relatives to watch her kids and went to the office.
Stephen Robbins, Ruiz’s lawyer, said that her case was the first time he noticed a shift in immigration policies under the Trump Administration. “A lot of the stories we were seeing on the news were people who might have had problems under Obama, too—Alejandra’s case was the first one where it was like, No, this is different,” he said. “During the Obama years, they might have gone to her house and said, ‘Hey, we need you to come in and do a check-in,’ but what would have happened almost certainly is they would have let her go.”
At the ICE office, as the hours passed, Ruiz kept thinking they’d soon release her. Instead, shackles were placed around her ankles, wrists, and waist, and she was taken to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, a for-profit immigrant-detention facility operated by the GEO Group, a large private-prison firm.
In detention, Ruiz barely ate—the food, mainly bread and beans, looked bad and smelled worse. Officers gave her fibre packets and pills, but she refused to take them. She spent time in the center’s law library, researching her rights. Talking to her kids on the phone was excruciating. When they spoke at all, it was mostly sobs. Her twelve-year-old daughter was especially distraught.
Ruiz didn’t want her kids to know how much she feared being deported to Guatemala—a country where she knew no one. “I haven’t done anything but work here and try to live a normal life with my kids,” she said. Guatemala was a world away. “You hear the stories,” she said—fellow-detainees had told her about the rise of gang violence and lawlessness in the country. “I don’t want to go to there, I don’t want to take my kids there.”
Robbins filed a motion to reopen her childhood asylum case, and on March 30th—less than a week after her arrest—Ruiz was released from detention to wait for a deportation hearing. That weekend, she turned thirty-one. She didn’t feel like celebrating. Her kids were elated but terrified, too. Her oldest daughter, Ashley, begged to stay home from school, fearing Ruiz would be gone when she came back at the end of the day.
“I feel like everything I’ve worked so hard for was taken from me,” Ruiz said. As she awaits a decision on her case, she has another pressing concern: she lost her job at the senior-care facility during her time in detention. “I started off in a one-bedroom with my kids and worked my butt off to be where I’m at for them,” she said. Now she worries they may soon face eviction and homelessness. “I don’t have a mansion, but I have something for my kids to call their own.”
The Apple Picker
Dolores Bustamante Romero was born in a small rural town near Mexico City. She was the second of four children; her mother, who was on her own, struggled to provide for them. At sixteen, Bustamante moved in with a man in his early twenties. “He was nice, at the beginning,” she said. The couple had four kids together, but their relationship soured. “A normal day would be, ‘You’re good for nothing. Who do you think would want you like that?’ ” Dolores said. “That was a normal day.”
In 2003, when Bustamante was in her early thirties, a man at work told her that he was going to the U.S.—to New Jersey. “I can help you,” he said. “You don’t have to stay here.” She took up his offer. “It was heartbreaking, because I couldn’t bring all of my children,” she recalled. Bustamante left her three older kids with her mother—she’d send back money to support them—and set out with her youngest daughter, who was then three.
After stints cleaning offices and working in factories, Bustamante took up low-wage farm jobs: picking pumpkins, cutting watermelon. An apple-picking gig in upstate New York changed her life. A fellow-farmworker introduced Bustamante to Mujeres Divinas, an organization that helps women working in agricultural jobs. “I found out that not having documents doesn’t mean that we can’t do something,” she said. She also became an active member of her local church, and got involved with the Worker Justice Center of New York, an organization that advocates on behalf of agricultural workers.
Bustamante was finally feeling settled. She was supporting her kids back in Mexico and her daughter in New York, and she was proud of that. Then, one morning in October, 2014, she was pulled over while driving to church with her daughter, and arrested by Border Patrol.
The Worker Justice Center intervened on her behalf, and Bustamante was released from detention on an order of supervision. For the next few years, her case wound its way through the immigration courts. She paid steep fees to an attorney, who never pressed to have her case administratively closed, which, during the Obama Administration, was a common way for undocumented parents who’d committed no significant crimes to resolve their cases. In February, a new attorney named Jose Perez agreed to take her case pro bono—but by then, he said, the legal landscape had shifted. On March 15th, Dolores stood in a courtroom in Batavia, New York, facing the prospect of imminent deportation. “It felt like a death sentence,” she said, about the prospect of returning to Mexico.
“They wanted to kick her out that day,” Perez recalls, of the government’s position in March. But at the hearing, Perez convinced the judge to grant an extension, and in May, he told the court that Bustamante planned to apply for asylum. “I believe she could be in danger if sent back,” he said. Later this month, they’ll return to court, to help determine Bustamante’s fate.
“In the previous Administration, we would’ve already closed this case—that is not the situation with the new Administration,” Perez said. “I closed two hundred cases last year, because we had the chance to negotiate with the prosecution based on the deportation priorities,” he said. “I requested to close this case almost as soon as I got it, but the prosecution told me that there was no chance of that happening as things are laid out now.”
The Hotel Worker
Idalia Fuentes-Morales knew that driving was risky. She and her husband, Arnold Rivera, are both undocumented immigrants from Honduras. Four years ago, Rivera was arrested after a traffic stop, and then spent almost five months detained by ICE. Rivera’s detention had been what prompted Fuentes-Morales to learn to drive—she had no idea when her husband would be released.
In late February, Fuentes-Morales was driving to her kitchen-staff job at a Hampton Inn in Bedford, New Hampshire, when police lights flashed behind her. It was 4:49 A.M., well before sunrise. An officer approached the car and asked Fuentes-Morales for her driver’s license. She didn’t have one, so the officer arrested her.
On April 3rd, she was deported to Honduras—a country she hadn’t seen in almost two decades. “My kids miss her so much,” Rivera said. “Now we don’t know what will happen.”
After her husband’s arrest, Fuentes-Morales had hired a lawyer named Zoila Gómez, who’d been able to help get him released from detention. According to Gómez, because Rivera had no criminal record—and because two of his three children were U.S. citizens, and the third had residency under an Obama-era policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—he was deemed a non-priority case. Fuentes-Morales’s case was almost identical, and yet the outcome was completely different. “She would have been granted a stay,” Gómez, who now represents Fuentes-Morales, said. “But not under this Administration. Everything happened so quickly.”
Fuentes-Morales is now living with a niece in Santa Rita, Honduras, a small town thirty miles south of San Pedro Sula, a city considered especially dangerous even by Honduran standards. Aside from her niece, Fuentes-Morales’s close family—her mother, father, siblings, husband, and children—lives in the United States. “My wife is not doing well down there,” Rivera said. Mostly, Fuentes-Morales stays in her niece’s house, waiting to speak with the rest of her family on WhatsApp. “She says that it’s hard without us, that she doesn’t sleep because she’s so stressed,” Andy said.
Fuentes-Morales’s thirteen-year-old daughter has struggled without her mother. She spends much of her time alone in her room, watching Netflix. Often, she asks to sleep next to Rivera, curling up on her mother’s side of the bed.