Children in Del Rey’s deep-rooted immigrant community brace for a coming storm

By Gary Walker

Kids who attend the Mar Vista Family Center’s after-school programs are nervous about the incoming Trump administration’s policies toward immigrant communities. Denisse Hernandez, 13, wants to know what you really think.
Photo by Maria Martin

Are my mom and dad going to get deported?

Am I going to have to go back to Mexico?

Carlos Daniel Jimenez has fielded all manner of difficult questions from young children during his eight years as a volunteer coordinator and afterschool tutor at the nonprofit Mar Vista Family Center, but repeatedly hearing ones like these in the aftermath of the presidential election has left him saddened and perplexed.

“There’s no right answer to give them right now,” says Jimenez, 30, a first-generation American who goes by Danny. “We have an idea of where things are going, but having these kids — little kids — come to us, crying at times, with their fears and anxieties about their parents or grandparents being deported to Mexico is hard for us all.”

Del Rey, the largely residential area south of Mar Vista and west of Culver City, is home to about 32,000 people — 44% of them of Latino (primarily Mexican) heritage, according to 2010 U.S. Census figures. A short distance from the yacht clubs of Marina del Rey and the rapidly gentrifying streets of Venice, it’s a low-key neighborhood where multiple generations of Latino families as well as recent immigrants have formed deep community bonds.

The Mar Vista Family Center, which occupies two buildings on Slauson Avenue just west of the 405 Freeway, began in 1977 as a preschool for low-income families and has since grown into a full-fledge education and community engagement nonprofit. Dozens of kids come here after school to play and do homework. Last Friday local families prepared more than 200 tamales for a Christmas posada.

Like East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights and other L.A. neighborhoods with long-established Mexican and Central American populations, Del Rey has deeply — if not as publicly — lamented future uncertainty under a Trump presidency. During the lengthy and vociferous presidential campaign, President-elect Donald Trump unflinchingly pledged to chase out or deport the 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, directing his most pointed language at those who came from south of the border.

Advocates for immigrant communities and Los Angeles area public officials have promised to defend L.A.’s undocumented residents against deportation unless they are gang-affiliated or have a criminal record. Just this week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and L.A. City Council set aside a combined $5 million to fund legal assistance for immigrants facing deportation, with as much as $5 million more expected to come through private donations.

In the meantime, Westchester-based immigration attorney Mariela Sagastume said her office has been inundated with the same kinds of questions that Jimenez has been hearing at the Mar Vista Family Center.

“We’ve had a waiting list here for clients for the last 30 days. There’s a lot of panic going right now,” Sagastume said.

Though “rapists,” “criminals” and “bad hombres” may be the new administration’s stated focus, Trump’s hardline message has left a distinct impression on local public school children who openly worry that they and their loved ones may become ensnared in a larger immigration dragnet.

If most elementary school kids don’t think much about politics, these kids are the exception. When asked to express their thoughts on paper while being photographed for this story, antagonism toward Trump and his stance on immigration came naturally and without any prompting.

What comes across more openly in private, says Jimenez, is fear.

“When children who are six or seven years old approach you with their concerns and fears about their families being deported, it’s really tough,” said Jimenez, whose wife grew up in Del Rey. “The most difficult questions usually come from our little children. I’ve been a volunteer tutor here for eight years and these are the hardest questions that I’ve ever had to answer.”

DREAMers Awaken to a Nightmare

Jimenez, currently working toward a degree in child development, frequently touts the benefits of higher education to the older kids at the center. But teens and young adults receiving state-based financial aid under the California DREAM Act and temporarily shielded from deportation under President Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program face a more immediate challenge.

Trump, who has called DACA “one of the most unconstitutional actions ever undertaken by a president,” could not only unravel the program with the stroke of a pen, but those who volunteered information could plausibly see the government use it against them.

“The majority of the people we’ve been speaking with are DREAMers and citizens who are young people with adult parents residing here without documentation. They feel that their worst fears are coming true,” Sagastume said.

California is home to about 162,000 DACA recipients, according to the Pew Research Center.

Jasmine Lopez, a senior at Culver City High School, said she knows of several DACA beneficiaries at the Mar Vista Family Center.

“Getting an education is all they want. Most of us are Mexican here, and if we were in Mexico we could not get a good education without paying lot of money for it,” said Lopez, 17.

Denisse Hernandez, an eighth-grader at the ICEF Vista Academy charter school on Inglewood Boulevard in Del Rey, said immigrant family members have considered returning to Mexico since the election.

“They said if Donald Trump is already taking about deporting so many people, we might as well go back ourselves before he deports us,” said Hernandez, 13.

Cindy Gomez, a classmate at ICEF Vista, said she has family members who came to California decades ago without documentation.

“The thought of never seeing some of my family again is scary,” she said.

Emiliano Ramirez, who attends eighth grade at Ánimo Venice Charter Middle School in Del Rey, said living in multicultural Los Angeles left him and his friends caught off-guard by Trump’s broad appeal in other parts of the country.

Not all are taking to the streets in protest, but Lopez has participated in two marches protesting Trump’s election victory, including the highly-publicized Nov. 12 rally in Downtown Los Angeles that drew an estimated crowd of more than 10,000 people.

“That whole week I was feeling hopeless. I really believe in social justice, and as a woman and a Latina I was motivated to do something,” she said. “I just didn’t want to sit here and not do anything to help the country, so I got together with some other people from the center and we went downtown.”

Sanctuary City

In the weeks approaching inauguration day, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti has doubled down on promoting Los Angeles as a “sanctuary city” for immigrants, and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has renewed the department’s commitment to not enforce federal immigration law.

On Nov. 17, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin offered a similar message to Del Rey constituents who gathered for an immigration forum at the Mar Vista Family Center.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with this new administration, but I can tell you that you in this room, in this neighborhood, are not alone. The mayor, the city council and I are going to resist any efforts to harm you and anyone else in this neighborhood and in this city,” reassured Bonin to a packed house.

But like Jimenez, he doesn’t have all the answers. Recounting a conversation he had with a friend from Oaxaca, Mexico, Bonin said: “He asked me, ‘What’s going to happen to our mothers and fathers?’ And there was nothing that I could say to my friend of 20 years that would make it OK.”

Los Angeles Unified School District Board President Steve Zimmer, who represents Westside neighborhoods, is also seeking to reassure his constituents.

“We have to recognize that the president-elect has scared our children, and we have to respond as if anyone else had scared them,” Zimmer told The Argonaut. “My message is the same as it has been since the election results became final: We will protect our children and we will not cooperate with any attempt to interfere with their constitutional rights to a fair and free education, regardless of their immigration status. That will not change before Jan. 21, 2017, and it will not change after Jan. 21, 2017.”

Meanwhile, staff and volunteers at the Mar Vista Family Center are encouraging immigrant families to ask questions and equip themselves with accurate information about constitutional rights that apply to citizens as well as non-citizens.

“That’s one of our key goals right now,” Jimenez said. “We’re trying to make sure that when children or their parents come to us we can offer information that can empower them and make them feel a lot better about their situation.”

“We all have due process rights, whether you’re a citizen or not,” Sagastume explained. “But many people don’t know how our immigration laws work. The good thing is that many people are calling to get information.”

Ricardo García, a freshman at Venice High School, said his civics classes have helped him understand that Congress checks and balances the power of the executive branch.

“I talked to my mom about it before the election because I wanted to educate her the way that I had been educated: [the president] has to go to Congress and make a bill first,” said García, 14.

Sagastume can personally identify with such anxiety. Originally from Guatemala, her family tried to immigrate to the United States as refugees during the country’s “scorched earth” civil war in the 1980s. After being denied refugee status in the U.S., her father obtained residency in Canada but Sagastume, her sister and her mother were unable to join him for several years during the immigration process.

“I know how it feels to be separated from a family member. That’s one of the reasons why I became an immigration lawyer, because I know how complicated the immigration process can be,” she said. “It’s so difficult to hear about children having to deal with such adult issues.”