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As Congress moves forward with immigration reform, we take a look at how this issue connects to culture, business and families in the Northwest.Our region is home to a unique blend of immigrants who work in all parts of our economy — from high-tech to agriculture. This population already has a deeply-rooted history here. And its ranks are expanding rapidly.Proposals for comprehensive immigration reform address border security, employment verification, guest-worker programs and pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US.

As Trump rises to power, an undocumented family braces for impact

An undocumented father outside the school where he works as a custodian.
KUOW photo/Liz Jones
An undocumented father outside the school where he works as a custodian.

We picked the school as our meeting place.

Victor has worked as a custodian at this junior high for several years. It’s in a suburb of Seattle, near his home. He also runs a landscaping business on the side.

Victor’s also not his real name. We’re using a pseudonym because he’s undocumented.

Since the presidential election, the need for an “emergency plan” has become more real for Victor, and many undocumented immigrants. Think of it like planning for an earthquake. But in this scenario, the threat is that all or part of your family will be deported. And many families wonder if so-called sanctuary policies in the Seattle area will offer much protection.

Victor and his wife moved here from Colombia about 12 years ago. They have two girls in college, and one more in grade school. Only the youngest was born here.

As we walk outside, Victor said lately, he loses sleep thinking about the future.

“This is one of biggest fears,” Victor said in Spanish, although he speaks English well. “I don’t want a Plan B where the family returns to Colombia.”

Victor and his family left Colombia because of violence. In the U.S., they basically turned themselves in to immigration. They asked for asylum. It was denied.

For now, their case is still open — that’s why Victor is allowed a work permit. But they could be deported at any time.

Over the years, the family has prepared for various scenarios.

“It’s good to have a plan,” Victor said. “We keep it within our family. But it’s hard to have something concrete because we don’t know what the situation will be.”

For example, his oldest daughter is 22 now. Could she take charge of the younger girls if the parents had to leave?

The family has turned to a close friend who is a U.S. citizen. The friend agreed to look after the girls and the family home in case the parents can’t.

Immigration lawyers recommend a more binding agreement — a power of attorney. So far, Victor’s held off but he’s got a trusted attorney to call, if the time comes. It’s another key piece of their emergency plan.

Letting out a big sigh, he said this is the main topic at home now. It’s stressful.

“The happiness is not there like before,” he said. “The main theme is, ‘What’s going to happen? Are they going to let us stay? Are they going to make us leave?’”

Seattle is one of many cities that’s doubled down on "sanctuary" policies for undocumented immigrants. This means police and city staff, don’t get involved in immigration enforcement. They leave that to the feds.

Cuc Vu, director of Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, said the policies aim to create a welcoming city, where all people can live without fear.

“If you were to step outside Seattle City boundaries, an officer may ask about your immigration status,” Vu said. “We don’t in Seattle, for example. In another municipality you may not be eligible for services such as homeless shelter or food programs. Here in Seattle you are, because we serve everybody.”

City officials are also looking into a legal defense fund to help immigrants who are at risk of deportation. Similar programs already exist in Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities.

“I mean it’s absolutely absurd,” said Craig Keller, co-founder "Respect Washington." The group advocates for stricter immigrant laws and is pushing a citizens’ initiative to block Seattle’s sanctuary policies.

Keller opposes any city funds directed toward undocumented immigrants. And he’s eager to see Donald Trump follow through on one of his campaign promises — to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities.

“I’m welcoming the new examination by the federal administration about what federal dollars are coming to the city,” Keller said. “Where is that money going to and how’s it being wasted?”

I first met Victor and his family about four years ago at a big 15th birthday party, called a Quinceañera. It was a celebration for Victor’s middle daughter, and the two opened the dance floor together, all smiles — a father-daughter waltz to the tune of the Blue Danube.

I was writing a story about the family’s legal situation, and they invited me into their home and lives to talk about it.

This time is different. Only Victor wanted to talk. He said the rest of his family – his wife and daughters — are too stressed and disillusioned.

This family’s been in the eye of immigration for a long time. And Victor has a little advice for others who may find themselves here too.

“The only advice I can give any family is to stay calm,” Victor said. “Try to stay happy. Keep working, and continue on as honest people in this country.”

Liz Jones can be reached at Have a story idea? Use our story pitch form.  

Year started with KUOW: 2006