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As fear of deportation rises, undocumented St. Louisans make arrangements for their children

Rita, an undocumented woman living in St. Louis, fills out a power-of-attorney form with the help of a volunteer attorney and interpreter at a workshop organized by immigrant advocacy groups in south St. Louis Mach 11, 2017.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Rita, an undocumented woman living in St. Louis, fills out a power-of-attorney form with the help of a volunteer attorney and interpreter at a workshop organized by immigrant advocacy groups in south St. Louis.

In response to high anxiety among St. Louis immigrants living in the United States without authorization, a Catholic charity and two immigrant advocate groups have organized a series of legal workshops.

Some workshops teach immigrants their rights in case of arrest; others help participants establish powers of attorney.

“There is a huge amount of fear in the community after the new administration has come in, and with executive orders that have come down. People are wondering, ‘What’s going to happen to me?’ They feel they are at an increased risk of deportation, and I can’t tell them that they’re not,” said Meredith Rataj, site director for St. Francis Community Services’ Southside Center, which focuses on immigrant outreach.

On Saturday, more than 20 volunteer attorneys helped run a power of attorney workshop at the Southside Center. The document authorizes a person to make legal decisions on someone else’s behalf if incapacitated, or, in this instance, detained or deported.

“There’s not a lot we can do to remove the systemic things that are happening that cause that fear [of deportation], so at least we can help them to have the peace of mind to know that if were something to happen to them, they know what’s going to happen to their children. They know what’s going to happen to their home, to their car, to their bank account,” said Rataj.

A workshop participant named Rita gave her power of attorney to her brother and sister-in-law, her first choice to take care of her 12-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son.

Rita said she’s relieved to know that if she were to be deported her children would be taken care of, but she hopes to never need to legal document.

“Never. I’m a mother and I love my kids,” she said.

St. Louis Public Radio isn’t using Rita's last name because she is afraid of being identified and deported.

Rita said she wanted to have the paperwork so she could have an answer when her children asked what would happen to them if she and her husband, who is also undocumented, were detained.

Reducing children’s fears is one reason why St. Francis Community Services is hosting the workshops, said Amy Diemer, the managing attorney for the agency’s Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry.

Diemer said many families have some family members with legal status, and others who are undocumented.

“A lot of children in those mixed status families have expressed anxiety and fear that they will come home and their parents will be gone,” Diemer said. “And obviously parents are very worried, if that does happen, how can they protect their children?”

The power of attorney helps answer that question. Diemer described it as a safety net that reduces some of the unknowns — while parents can’t know whether they will be deported, they can know what will happen to their children if they are.

“If the parents are troubled and have a lot of anxiety, then that trickles down to the children. And so if we can give the parent some kind of comfort then hopefully this will alleviate some kind of trauma for the children,” Diemer said.

Rataj said so far the workshops organized by St. Francis Community Services, the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project and Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates have averaged 80 to 100 participants per workshop.

“The numbers keep growing every time,” Rataj said. “They typically have to turn away 20 to 30 families that walk in because we just don’t have the amount of attorneys and the time to see them all.”

The next workshop is set for Sunday, March 19, at St. Joseph Parish in Farmington.

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille