Rita Paez is talking to a lot of worried people these days.
A borough councilwoman and member of the Pottstown Human Relations Commission, Paez is also the founder and head of Centro Cultural Latinos Unidos, or CCLU as it is more commonly known.
A Hispanic cultural organization, CCLU is also frequently a voice for Pottstown’s Hispanic population, who comprise about 18 percent of the borough’s residents, according to 2015 Census estimates.
But perhaps Paez is best known in Pottstown as a person who helps Spanish speakers in the community connect to the services they need. And lately, she has been directing a lot of them to Audrey Allen, whose Conshohocken law firm specializes in immigration law.
“People are coming to me much more worried,” said Paez. “One poor lady she had to go to the hospital she was so worried. A lot of people are telling me they want to go to Canada.”
What they are worried about is the emphasis newly elected President Donald Trump has put on combatting illegal immigration, deporting those who are here illegally and the executive orders he has implemented to accomplish those goals.
So Paez decided it was time to share some expertise and invited Allen, her colleague Gonzolo Peralta and Lance Malcolm, who is an associated with Prince Law Offices in Bechtelsville, to a forum on the latest issues in immigration.
Their advice Wednesday night to the approximately 30 people who showed up at the CCLU offices in the basement of First Baptist Church?
“These are uncertain times that have been made more uncertain by the new administration,” said Malcolm. “It’s important not to respond in fear. We can’t respond to the politics of fear by being fearful ourselves.”
“I recognize that these are tough times for a lot of people and they may have become disheartened in the last few months,” Allen said.
“The vast majority of immigrants are not being affected right now. Even if you are undocumented, here in America, all human beings have rights,” she said. “Keep calm.”
Allen reminded the audience that among those rights, is the right to keep silent.
“Remember, you do not need to answer questions. You should say clearly that you invoke your right to remain silent and to make your phone call,” she said, adding that rather than rely on their phones, a card with the attorney’s number should be “carried in your pocket.”
In fact, to emphasize the point, Paez handed out cards immigrants should carry in their pockets to hand out, English on one side and Spanish on the other.
Allen further emphasized “do not sign anything without talking to a lawyer first. Don’t sign your rights away.”
She also advised immigrants not to answer the door when the government comes knocking. “Ask them to slip the warrant under the door,” she said. “If you open the door and there are undocumented immigrants inside, they can be detained.”
In terms of police involvement, Malcolm informed the group that there is no formal cooperation agreement between any police agency in Pennsylvania and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, often referred to as ICE.
So without a warrant, local or even state police cannot be compelled to cooperate with an ICE raid or, more importantly, pick up a suspect and detain them for ICE.
Also at the forum, although he did not intend to be a speaker, was Pottstown Police Sgt. Ed Kropp Jr., who was asked by Paez to say a few words.
He said the borough department has no written policy regarding immigration enforcement. “It’s not our job to go door to door unless there is a warrant,” said Kropp, who added that there has been no change in that condition since President Trump took office.
There has also been no perceptible change in the level of cooperation police are receiving from Hispanic residents or in their behavior from a police standpoint, he said.
“In fact, obviously I watch the news and I know what’s going on in the country, but if I lived in a vacuum and just came to work every day and did what I always do, I wouldn’t be able to tell anything had changed,” Kropp said.
“The police in the have been very good about this,” said Paez, noting that they often call her when they need to get into contact with Spanish speaking residents.
It’s also important to remember, said Paez, that Hispanics are not the only immigrants coming to America.
Allen agreed and noted that many middle eastern immigrants and those from Europe and the Pacific come through Mexico because it is easier to get into the U.S. that way.
“I gave a talk in Upper Darby a few weeks ago and several hundred Irish immigrants watched on Facebook because they were scared to come in,” said Allen. “I talked to a blue-eyed blonde Irish woman who said nobody looks at here in this country and thinks she is here illegally, but she is.”
No matter what their appearance, Allen advised undocumented drivers to be particularly careful “and not do anything that will get you pulled over.”
But sometimes, being detained is unavoidable and when it is, it is best to be prepared, the lawyers said.
And while Allen said schools are generally considered off-limits as places for ICE agents to conduct raids, Malcolm said it is a good idea to have custody papers drawn up for children as a precaution if parents are detained.
“A lot of people are trying to use power of attorney and that won’t work in Pennsylvania,” he said.
He said that immigrants who are a victim of a crime, or who can show they have been abused by a spouse, often have some leverage in immigration matters. “It does not have to be physical, it can be emotional abuse, like a spouse restricting or controlling access to a green card.”
“If you have been here more than 10 years and have children who were born here, there might be a way to get you a Green Card,” said Allen.
As far as what may change under Trump’s executive orders, which Malcolm described as “a parade of horribles,” he noted that the impact they will have is still unclear.
“They are so badly written, perhaps intentionally, they give no specific direction and are vague and ambiguous,” which may make them difficult to enforce, Malcolm said. “We’re just going to have to wait and see. In the meantime, people should continue to live their lives.”
One thing that is recently evident as a result of the new administration, said Peralta, is the number of phone calls his office is receiving from people asking about detentions.
“There has been a marked increase,” he said, noting that the increase is no larger than when raids were conducted under the Obama administration.
“President Obama deported more people than any other president in history, and they came in waves and troughs,” he said. “We’re just waiting to see if it will be the same under Trump.”