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More than 500,000 undocumented immigrants live in New York state, but not all enjoy the benefits of living in a sanctuary city.

For the undocumented, life looks different outside a sanctuary city

For the undocumented, life looks different outside a sanctuary city

Mere miles from the sanctuary city of New York City, immigrant families lives in fear, unprotected from deportation.

More than 500,000 undocumented immigrants live in New York state, but no...
More than 500,000 undocumented immigrants live in New York state, but not all enjoy the benefits of living in a sanctuary city.

The marker between two territories is not just a line on a map. Norma Casimiro knows this all too well. Seventeen years ago, she left her home state of Morelos, Mexico, with a young son. Since then, she has lived in Westbury, New York, a suburban town in Nassau County with a population of just over 15,000. She lives in a studio in a sublet single-family home with her husband, who is also undocumented, and their eight-year-old daughter who was born in the United States.

Now, in the aftermath of the presidential election, Casimiro is anxious. Westbury is 11 miles from Queens, which means 11 miles from the protections that a so-called "sanctuary city" offers undocumented immigrants.

"We’ve never really considered moving to the city because we have jobs here and we feel as if we’re a part of the community," Casimiro said. "But it does sometimes cross our minds because of what could happen after January 20."

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Norma Casimiro
Norma Casimiro

She knows that New York City would provide better public services for her and her family. "You can feel safer over there," she said, "especially after I heard Mayor (Bill) De Blasio say he would defend all New Yorkers, regardless of their immigration situation."

Living in the middle-class suburbs comes with a number of everyday difficulties, like limited transportation, scant social programs and high cost of living. Now, Casimiro feels even more vulnerable, anxious over the president-elect’s campaign threat to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. She also lives in fear that Trump’s anti-immigration policies may leave her son without the benefits of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), a type of administrative relief from deportation created during the Obama administration.

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Since the election, she's perceived a change in the way people in the community look at her. "I have noticed some disapproving looks that left me with a bad taste," she said. "In Westbury, there are more Latinos than in other parts of the island and you feel safer. But I still feel afraid of going to some stores alone."

She and her family know that Westbury law enforcement has collaborated with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the past. That's why the family generally avoids any type of conflict and rarely goes out at night.

Once, Casimiro had an incident while cleaning a house in the area, which left her shaken.

“I was taking the trash out ... and the alarm went off in the neighbor’s home," she said. "The police cornered me and asked me lots of questions. They asked for my ID. I wish I had one of those IDs they give out in New York. I told them I didn’t have it on me because the owner had brought me in her car. Luckily, the babysitter, who speaks good English, came and intervened on my behalf."

In 2014, the Nassau Sheriff’s Department ceased cooperation with ICE and stopped holding immigrants in jail for longer than allowed by law. The Sheriff’s Department also adopted a set of recommendations, such as that agents not ask anyone about their immigration status.

The organization Make The Road New York explains the difference between living in a city or the suburbs. "The very structure of a city offers more protection because of the existence of public transportation, a more dense population and lots of diversity," organizer Natalia Aristizabal said. "The mere fact of being surrounded by neighbors in an apartment building makes people feel safer than living in an isolated house."

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New York City offers access to social programs and diverse community centers. A policy, passed last year, states that municipal IDs can be used as official identification and to open bank accounts. There are also a number of reliable lawyers for low-income people at risk of being deported.

Legislation also exists in New York that prohibits the Department of Corrections from sharing information about any prisoner with ICE before sentencing. Nor can other law enforcement agencies provide the federal government with any information about the immigration status of New Yorkers.

These protections disappear outside the boundaries of the five boroughs. And Long Island’s geography does not help. Immigrants usually own a car because of the lack of public transport, but driving without a license creates risk. "The racial profiling techniques used in the past to intercept a Latino in a vehicle and automatically report their immigration status are well known," said Walter Barrientos, the lead organizer for Make the Road New York in Long Island. "In some places, measures have been taken to control these actions, but not so much in Nassau."

Scattered infrastructure and lack of diversity facilitate more discrimination. "This isn’t Manhattan," Barrientos said. "It’s really easy to see who does and who doesn’t have papers here. It’s those who drive old cars or are walking towards the train station."

Nassau’s Police Department reported 32 hate crimes in 2015. The department also reports an uptick in these types of attacks since the election. "Over the last few months, our people have clearly seen how there are people who are incorrigible when it comes to expressing who they do not want in their neighborhoods," Barrientos said.

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In Nassau, legal advice for immigrants is almost non-existent. So it's difficult to explain, for instance, that pleading guilty to a traffic violation could affect an immigration process. "Any problem with the justice system opens a door to deportation. This is the biggest fear of our community: that Trump’s promise to deport all immigrants with a criminal history may come true."

Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, said it is important now to find creative ways to defend people against a Trump administration that "seeks to fulfill their promise of harassing immigrants." This includes establishing a network of allies within the community who are "willing to turn their homes into 'sanctuaries' where people can stay and feel safe," she said.

In the meantime, Norma Casimiro waits. In nearly 20 years of living in the United States, she has never felt so insecure about her future and the future of her children. "All we can do is fight so that our voices are heard," she said. "And hope that someday we will enjoy the same protections as those in New York City."

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