Executive orders from President Trump prompted fear and uncertainty for some immigrant families and the organizations that support them in St. Louis.
On Wednesday, Trump signed an order directing funding to start building a border wall with Mexico. He also signed an order to crack down on “sanctuary cities” that don't prosecute immigrants for living there illegally.
“The phone has been pretty much ringing off the hook since the election,” said St. Louis immigration attorney, Jessica Mayo. Mayo works for the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action (MICA) Project, representing immigrants trying to gain various forms of legal status.
"They're really afraid of being separated from their children or from their spouses. They are afraid that current, existing options that they are pursuing to get legal status will disappear and go away,” she said.
One of her project’s clients is 22-year old Brayan Mejia, who was born in Mexico but came with his parents to the U.S. as a child and lived the past 12 years in southern Illinois. Through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, he finished high school and got an athletic scholarship and associates degree from a local college.
“This is all I know,” Mejia said. “I’ve studied here, I’ve worked here all my life. I feel like it’s only fair that I can have something secure —- to be able to keep studying and working.”
Through DACA, Mejia is allowed to continue working in the U.S. Following the president’s executive orders Wednesday, he said his family’s future feels uncertain.
“At any point, he could separate my family," he said. "I could be here for the rest [of my life], and my dad could be over there [in Mexico], and then never be able to see them again if we happen to separate.”
“It’s just a really scary time for the immigrant population,” Mayo added. “And I think that idea of the wall is almost a bigger deal than the [deportation] enforcement for our clients, because it’s all part of this attitude of not welcoming people.”
Late Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan said Congress will front money for the border wall, which is expected to cost billions of dollars. The White House maintains Mexico will pay for the wall, and said this week there are different ways to get that country to do it. Mexican leaders have repeatedly said the country will not pay for the wall.
"It's a commonsense first step to really securing our porous border,” said White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. “This will stem the flow of drugs, crime, illegal immigration into the United States. And yes, one way or another, as the President has said before, Mexico will pay for it.”
Steve Legomsky is a Washington University Law Professor Emeritus, and a former counsel to the former Secretary of Homeland Security. Legomsky also served as Chief Counsel of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for two years.
He said the government will struggle to carry out the executive orders with the current resources in place.
“Even if there are more detentions and deportations, the problem with the current process is there aren’t enough people to decide the cases,” Legomsky said. “They need more immigration judges and asylum officers and others. Until those people are brought on board, the backlogs will continue to grow.”
He added, “The problem is, once you use all available resources for any one of these things, there won’t be any available resources for the others.”
Later this week, President Trump is expected to sign a new executive order to halt the refugee program and stop accepting Syrian refugees. He is expected to also suspend visas for people from other predominately Muslim countries.
“The world refugee crisis is at an epidemic right now. It’s never been in the world as it is now, for many tens of millions of people who desperately need our help. Other countries are opening their arms to them and many of us feel, we should as well,” Legomsky said, opposing the expected White House plan.
He said the current vetting process for refugee admission to the U.S. is extensive: it often takes several years, includes multiple interviews, and the collection of data for federal enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies.
“I like to say, because the vetting is so extreme -- no competent terrorist would ever select the U.S. refugee admissions system as the preferred strategy for gaining admission to US territory. It just wouldn’t make sense.”