Armando always thought that if he worked hard and obeyed the law, he'd have nothing to worry about.
"I'm a calm guy. All I do is work and live a quiet life," he told me at the offices of Community Legal Services (CLS) in Center City. Armando, which is the way he asked to be identified to protect his identity, is an undocumented immigrant who came to Philadelphia from Ecuador about two decades ago. He left behind a wife and a newborn – a baby girl.
His time in Philly has been mostly uneventful; he's worked hard to send money back home. But now Armando fears being deported after his employer fired him and threatened to call immigration.
Armando says that until this job, he was always treated fairly at the restaurants where he was employed. Around 2010, he started working in a South Philly restaurant, where he says his boss was abusive to employees, choosing someone else to pick on every few days. "We worked a lot of hours in this place," Armando says. "It was like working six jobs." The employer refused to pay Armando for his overtime, but Armando kept working there because another supervisor repeatedly promised it would get better.
>> READ MORE: No Sanctuary – Part one in a series
About a year ago, while Armando was enjoying a day off, his boss called and accused him of not showing up for work. Armando says he explained that it was his day off, but his employer didn't believe him — or didn't care — and fired him on the spot. When Armando asked about the paycheck he was owed, his employer threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to get him deported.
And just like that, Armando's uneventful life in Philadelphia stopped being uneventful.
In past weeks, we've heard a lot of outrage about President Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policies and child separation at the border. But in Philadelphia, thousands of miles from the border, the rhetoric and the resulting actions are pushing law-abiding undocumented immigrants like Armando into the shadows.
Philadelphia is the base for ICE operations in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Delaware. The Philadelphia office is the most aggressive in the country, arresting more undocumented immigrants without criminal convictions than any other ICE office. The office also informally expanded the category that would put you on the top-priority list to include people with traffic tickets.
>> READ MORE: No Sanctuary: Round up – Part two in a series
There are approximately 50,000 undocumented immigrants in Philadelphia. Many work. Many have been discriminated against or had their wages stolen from them – which is illegal under federal, state, and city law. Wage theft and exploitation of undocumented workers is a common practice, and fear of deportation is the insurance policy of abusive employers against legal action.
With thousands of dollars owed to him, the risk of retaliation from his previous boss, and ICE in mind, Armando had to decide if he was willing to take the risk and seek justice.
On a friend's recommendation, he sought legal advice through CLS.
"We have always advised our immigrant clients about the risks," says Nadia Hewka a senior attorney at CLS. But now, in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, things are different.
For example, prior to the ramp up of deportations by ICE in the last year, the risk of an employer calling ICE on an employee and having ICE act on that was low. Most employers would want to stay anonymous because employing an undocumented worker is illegal. Plus, ICE had better things to do than respond to anonymous tips.
Everything is different now. "At this point we don't know what's happening with those kind of phone calls," explains Hewka. "Employers feel emboldened right now to make those threats."
One story that is on the minds of many undocumented immigrants and their lawyers is of the deportation of Irvin González, who was picked up by ICE at the El Paso, Texas, courthouse. She was there to obtain a restraining order against an abusive ex-boyfriend when ICE arrived by surprise. According to Hewka, it is stories like this that make people afraid to seek help.
"It is the very essence of chilling behavior," explains Louis Rulli, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania. "Whether or not ICE engages in this conduct, the mere threat has a powerful impact on what people do." He adds: "It is totally impossible to divorce the headlines in the news every day about zero tolerance, about how immigrants are invading this country and are criminals," from the experience of undocumented immigrants in Philadelphia.
To Philadelphia's credit, we are doing more than other cities.
Philadelphia is a "sanctuary city," a status Mayor Kenney was happy to go to court to defend and won. In December 2016, the eve of the Trump administration, City Council passed a resolution that recognized "every person's right to earn a living, regardless of immigration status." The District Attorney's Office has a designated attorney in the office to ensure that prosecution of an immigrant for a nonviolent crime will not trigger deportation proceedings. Further, in response to the stomach-turning images and sounds of immigrant children in detention after being separated from their parents at the border, Philadelphians came out to protest on multiple occasions.
The city, however, can't control ICE — and that's what worries the lawyers of Armando and other people like him.
For now, Armando is waiting to hear back on his application of a T-Visa, which protects people who were trafficked, including people who were coerced to work without pay as he was. If he gets the visa, not only will he have the legal shield to go after his abusive ex-employer, but he also might have a chance to bring his daughter and wife here. Without the visa, taking action is just too risky.
Armando's daughter, whom he knows only through FaceTime, recently started studying at the university back in Ecuador. Her education is only possible thanks to the money that her father has sent back over the years.