The undocumented who live, work in the shadow of the White House
Childcare workers and students among 11 million undocumented people who now fear deportation
Claudette Monroy slipped into a window seat on a crowded bus.
Her long curls fell forward as she looked down at her lap, checking her homework before she arrived at George Washington University, where she is a graduate student.
When she first started at the school just blocks from the White House, she struggled with how best to describe herself to classmates.
“I’m an international student,” she tried. But it didn’t fit, so she started introducing herself as “an immigrant student.” That, too wasn’t right. She finally settled on, “Hi. I’m Claudette. I’m an undocumented student from Mexico.”
As the bus turned at 16th and K streets in northwest Washington, Monroy pulled the cord. She got out and walked the rest of the way, past a one-man protest where a sign read “I Love Diversity”. Past a statue of President Andrew Jackson perched on a horse in Lafayette Square. Past a chain-link fence in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which is now occupied by a president who was elected on a promise to target people much like her.
There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country and while many are now watching from afar as their fates are decided in the nation’s capital, there are others who share streets and sidewalks and Metro trains with the very people making those decisions. They are taxi drivers who find politicians in their back seats. They are child care workers who get calls from Justice Department employees who are running late. They are scholars who find themselves standing in the shadow of the White House, where a pen stroke could undo all they’ve been working toward.
“It’s so crazy the person who lives there has so much power to impact everyone’s lives,” Monroy said.
During his campaign, Trump vowed to build a wall at the Mexican border, step up deportations of those already in the country, and turn away refugees and immigrants from Muslim countries.
“It’s our right as a sovereign nation to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us,” Trump said in a major immigration address last summer.
Since taking office, he has already started making good on those promises.
Among those in Washington who could be affected – and who spoke to The Post despite fears of repercussions – are a chef who worked his way up from a dishwasher, a transgender woman who fears death if she is deported, a labourer who spends his days off at the library, a father of two American-born children and Monroy, who works at a non-profit that helps immigrants women and knows what’s at stake beyond her own life.
Before Trump’s inauguration, whenever Monroy passed the White House, she would take a picture and post it on Snapchat or Instagram. Many were accompanied by praise for President Barack Obama, who created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme to offer temporary protection to her and more than 700,000 “dreamers” who were brought to the US as children. The programme’s future is uncertain, and so are their fates.
That day in January when Monroy walked to class, she posted a new photo of the White House.It featured an emoji of a brown fist and one word: “Resist.”
The head chef
As he does seven mornings a week, Enrique cruised around the Washington Beltway, the Capitol gleaming on his right. He knows the laws made there could devastate his family. He also knows the people who work there, including members of Congress, eat his food. Enrique, who asked to be identified by his first name only, crossed into the US in 2001 and started washing dishes in Washington 10 years ago. Now 36, he is the head chef at a popular restaurant in northern Virginia.
“I know they are not so stupid that they don’t see that we do something good for this country too, right?” he asked of the people beneath the Capitol dome. “This is a country made by immigrants, right?”
Enrique’s rise has been fueled by faith in hard work. He juggles two full-time jobs. In his living room is a ring binder stuffed with the paperwork of legitimacy: tax returns, English certificates, a culinary diploma.
A typical 12-hour day began with dropping his son off at day care and driving to Virginia where his wife has been working since 7am on their side business hawking health products. Enrique headed out on the pavements to recruit customers. “Mira, Amigo, can I give you some information,” said the man who, as a boy, would grab a bunch of bananas from his mother’s shop in Honduras and sell them one by one on the street. At the end of three hours, he gave his wife eight phone numbers for follow ups.
By 2pm, he had changed into a chef’s jacket and was deep into pre-dinner prep with four assistants. He grabbed a jumbo tomato. His knife, a woodpecker blur, turned it into a pile of perfect slices in seconds.
“He’s an asset to any business,” said his boss, a naturalised US citizen who is aware of Enrique’s undocumented status. “When you find somebody willing to work hard and who wants to be here, you’re lucky.”
Enrique said the anti-immigrant climate of the country weighs on him: “I can’t stand to think about being separated from my son. Now sometimes my mind is crazy with ‘What if? What if? What if?’”
He picked up his knife and turned back to work.
A transgender woman
A man came to Catalina Velasquez’s apartment building in downtown Washington recently, angrily yelling for her. She did not know him. She doesn’t know how he found out where she lived.
But she knows why he was there. It’s the same reason she’s being cyber-bullied, she said. Not only is she a transgender woman, she is also an undocumented immigrant and has been a vocal critic of Trump’s leadership.
That combination, she said, makes people angry.
“I am entitled to be here, unapologetically so,” said Velasquez, who runs her own political, media and diversity consulting firm and spoke at the White House during Obama’s presidency. “And I love this country”, although she does not harbour any illusions about its history of hostility to minorities and women. “This is not the first time we have had a bigot in office,” she said. “I think we will survive it.
But like before, it will come at the expense of many lives, and it will be lives like mine.”
Velasquez, who graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and speaks three languages, is protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But if Trump abolishes DACA, she fears that as a transgender women, deportation will mean a death sentence for her.
She was 14 when her parents took her out of private school in her native Colombia and moved the family to the US, where they applied for asylum and were denied. She was in her first semester at Georgetown when her mother called to tell her immigration agents were at the family’s home and she needed her daughter to write down their bank account numbers. Her mother, father and sister were detained and deported without her ever seeing them. She was 21 then.
“I have not been able to hug my mother since then,” Velasquez, now 29, said. “Every year is one more Christmas, one more Thanksgiving, one more birthday that I don’t get to see them. Sometimes it’s debilitating. Sometimes it gives me the strength to say that this shouldn’t happen to another family.”
The man who tried to find her that day never made it to her apartment. If he had, he would have seen plenty of signs that prove her tough resolve. On her walls, posters detail her activism and hopes. On one hangs a large framed image of a peace sign with the word “Imagine”. On another, a butterfly under the words, “No Papers. No Fear!!!”
A building maintenance worker
On inauguration day, Solomon, 50, headed to the shopping centre. But when the African immigrant got to a security checkpoint, he turned back.
“For 15 years, the police never even asked me for a piece of paper,” said Solomon, who asked to use his first name only. “But now, I don’t know. Maybe Trump is coming for me.”
He came to Washington from Ethiopia in 2002 and has lived in the netherworld of the undocumented ever since.
He spent several years as a building maintenance worker, but more often has stood outside a Home Depot in Washington to get day jobs painting or in construction. It’s hard to get work without a passport or driver’s licence, he said, but at least he has lived without hassle. So far.
On the days he does not work, he often heads to a Washington public library less than 2km from the White House to read international news at a computer terminal. Last week, he walked out after finishing, hiking up the collar of his leather coat against the February cold. He pulled out his telephone and called up a Voice of America channel with news in Amharic.
“More killing, always killing there,” he said, shaking his head. “My friends there tell me ‘Don’t think about coming back here’. ”
His family, of Eritrean descent, was kicked out of Ethiopia in the 1990s, he said. Even though they were all born in Ethiopia, government agents took their shop in Addis Ababa without compensation, he said, and forced them into Eritrea. His uncle died in the desert during the move. “He was eaten by hyenas,” Solomon said.
Solomon made his way to Mexico, snuck across the border into California and immediately applied for political asylum. He was denied, but his lawyer failed to tell him that he had 30 days to appeal. When he didn’t, his file was closed.
Now, more than a decade later, he’s trying again, paying an immigration lawyer US$2,000 in advance to reopen his case. Maybe that will shield him.
“Now, I have nothing,” he said. “Trump can do whatever he wants to me.”
The 31-year-old custodian never thought he’d hear his mother and wife, immigrants from El Salvador, make the suggestion they did: maybe the family should move to Mexico.
“No,” he told them. “I know more about the US than Mexico. I don’t think there is a place for me in Mexico.”
He said he has had the same conversation with other relatives and that he tried to encourage all of them to stay, even those with less protection than him.
The custodian, who asked not to be identified by name, was 13 when his family, with the help of paid people smugglers, brought him from Mexico to Washington. He went to middle school and high school in the city. His first full-time job cleaning office buildings, at the age of 17, was just a few blocks away from the White House. This is their home, he told his mother and wife. This is his children’s home.
He has a three-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son who were born in the US.
On a recent afternoon, he picked them up from school and, as they sat nearby drawing, he bragged about them. The boy was awarded a scholarship for a private school and just received an award for being the best math student
“I want them to become something I didn’t,” he said. “I want them to have a career. I want them to have a degree. If that means I have to stay here and face all this racism, I have to.”
At the building where he now works, an equal-distance walk between the Capitol and the White House, he sees Trump hats on shelves. He said he questions how people can leave them there, knowing immigrants clean their offices every day.
Under Obama, the custodian qualified for DACA protection, but his permit expires in May. While he’s applied for it to be renewed, nothing has yet arrived in the post.
“I’m really afraid,” he said. “If I lose DACA, it’s going to be a mess for me. I’m going to lose my job. How am I going to raise my kids? When I got DACA, I felt I was coming out of the shadows. Now I feel we’re going back into the shadows.”
In March, Claudette Monroy will have spent exactly half of her life in Mexico and half in the US. At 30, she can now express her feelings better in English, but responds more strongly when people curse in Spanish.
She was 10 when her father died and 12 when her mother told her she could no longer pay for her school and needed her to stay home with her younger sister.
At 15, using a visitor’s visa, she came to live with her older sister in Virginia.
“The plan was I was going to finish my freshman year, and I was going to go back to Mexico,” she said. “Then life happened. I was doing well in school.”
Monroy is now working toward a master’s degree in international education. She is also the education director at The Family Place, an organisation that offers literacy classes for adult immigrants, many who have no more than a third-grade education. She credits DACA with giving her that freedom to thrive and help others.
“A lot of fear I had before was taken away,” she said.
She hopes Trump will continue to honour the policy, but said if he revokes it, she is less worried about herself than others. Every day she sees women who come from places where gangs have taken their homes and tried to recruit their children. Women who fear not just instability, but losing loved ones, if they are forced to leave the US. It is why in recent weeks she has attended protests at the White House and in front of the Trump hotel, adding her slight frame to the swelling crowds.
“I’ve told my friends if I have to go down with a fight, it will be a glamorous fight,” she said.
When she left work one day, closing a lime green door behind her, she passed a sign in the yard.
On the front, visible from the street, it announced the name of the organisation.
On the back, it held a message that made her smile and that she sees as an important reminder amid so much uncertainly: Si, se puede. Yes, we can.