Uneasiness mounts in Lake Tahoe’s immigrant community
That is how members of Lake Tahoe’s South Shore immigrant community describe how they feel amid the nationalistic fervor that helped sweep Donald Trump into the White House this past fall and the executive orders that the president has signed since taking office.
And while support from some of the most important local institutions, including the police department and college, has counteracted some of the negativity, life these days feels much different than it did a year ago.
“The community is feeling very concerned about these restrictions and the executive orders,” said Bill Martinez, executive director of the South Lake Tahoe Family Resource Center, a nonprofit that works with other entities to provide services, educational opportunities, family advocacy and bilingual counseling for children and adults.
President Trump wasted little time in acting on campaign promises hinging on his message of “America first.” Days after taking the oath of office Jan. 20, the president signed two executive orders.
One expanded the prioritization of enforcement to include, among other areas, those who “in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.” The same executive order was what became broadly identified as the president’s crackdown on “sanctuary cities.” The order states that sanctuary jurisdictions that refuse to comply will be ineligible for federal grants, “except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes by the Attorney General or the Secretary.”
Among the other provisions included in the “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” order, the directive also called for expansion of a program allowing state and local law enforcement jurisdictions to enforce federal immigration law.
The president’s executive orders spurred many rumors among some members in the local immigrant community.
“We’ve definitely had an increased volume of emails and phone calls,” said Cristina M. Hughes, a local immigration attorney.
Hughes serves a range of clients, including many who are at various stages in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, and some who are undocumented. The latter, Hughes said in a February interview with the Tribune, feel especially frightened.
“We definitely noticed that there is a lot of fear and it kind of undermines our sense of community and public safety … people don’t feel comfortable contacting the police.”
That very concern is what South Lake Tahoe Police Chief Brian Uhler hoped to alleviate in January via a memo to City Council.
In short, Uhler wrote, everyone in the South Lake Tahoe community, regardless of immigration status, should feel comfortable working with the police department.
“The South Lake Tahoe Police Department has a long-standing practice of not actively pursuing immigration-related matters. This philosophy is grounded in this key belief that maintaining good relations and open communication with those who may be victims of human trafficking or victims of crime should feel comfortable reporting such crimes without fear of deportation or immigration-related actions against them.”
‘What are you doing here?’
That and other messages have helped, but even here in South Lake Tahoe some immigrants have noticed a shift since the early days of the presidential campaign.
“They feel they are misunderstood because each of the women here … they are good citizens, they work, they are not what Mr. Trump is expressing about all of Mexicans, and they feel it’s not fair and it’s not true,” said Luz Maria Zepeda, an advocate at the South Lake Tahoe Family Resource Center.
Zepeda served as a translator in an interview between the Tribune and a group of women who all came to the U.S. from Mexico and who have all called South Lake Tahoe home for a minimum of 10 years.
“Even though they’re here in the circumstances they are … they are good citizens …they contribute to the community. They don’t take advantage of any programs …” Zepeda said after some back and forth with the women — all of whom agreed to speak with the Tribune on the condition the paper not disclose their identities.
Even a trip to the grocery store feels different now, said L.A., a South Lake Tahoe resident of 13 years who chose to go by her initials. Mostly it is just stares, but in a few instances there have been more blatant messages of intolerance.
Switching between English and Spanish, L.A. explained that she was recently at a local library speaking Spanish in a small group when a person walked by and told them to go back to Mexico.
Rosa, a South Lake Tahoe resident of 10 years who originally came to the U.S. to be with her husband, chimed in to add that there is a general attitude that can be summed up in a question: What are you doing here?
Another woman, who chose to be identified as Maria, said she is concerned the recent rhetoric will prevent younger members of the community from succeeding.
Maria, who also has lived in South Lake Tahoe for 13 years, recalled a recent incident at her daughter’s school where a student lost a personal item and accused a Latino student of taking it. The issue was quickly resolved, but it stokes the shared fear that younger members of the Hispanic community will face added adversity, said Maria.
Education institutions on Lake Tahoe’s South Shore have sought to combat those concerns.
In early February, Lake Tahoe Community College Superintendent and President Jeff DeFranco issued a statement assuring that the college would make its opportunities available to everyone.
“Our doors are open for all LTCC students, and we stand with our Dreamers and international students,” DeFranco said.
Later that month, the college’s board unanimously approved a resolution supporting undocumented students and campus diversity.
Teachers in the Lake Tahoe Unified School district also have been very helpful, said the four women — all of whom are mothers — interviewed by the Tribune. Still, they worry about the negative effects from the national dialogue on immigration and immigrants.
“The children have been afraid regardless of whether their parents are here legally or illegally,” Zepeda said in interpreting for Maria.
At that point, L.A.’s 8-year-old son sat on his mother’s lap and said that he is worried his family is going to be pulled apart. With heavy eyes, he shook his head, yes, when asked if he feels scared.
One thing is for sure, all of the women said: This is their home and this is where they belong.