BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Terrified by Alabama's strict new immigration crackdown, parents living in the state illegally say they are doing something that was unthinkable just days ago -- asking friends, relatives, co-workers and acquaintances to take their children if they're arrested or deported.
Many illegal immigrants signed documents in the past week allowing others to care for their children if needed, assistance groups say, and a couple living illegally in nearby Shelby County extracted a promise from the man's boss to send their three young children -- all U.S. citizens -- to Mexico should they be jailed under the law.
A key sponsor of the measure, state Sen. Scott Beason, said such concerns weren't raised when legislators were considering the bill, and he wonders if the stories now are designed to "pull on heart strings" and build sympathy for illegal immigrants.
But for Maria Patino -- who prays every time she leaves home -- even a chance encounter with police could end with her two elementary-age children being left alone or taken to foster care if she and her husband are sent back to Mexico. Both are in the country illegally and have no friends or relatives close enough to take in the kids.
"Every time I leave I don't know if I will come back," Patino, 27, said through tears. "I can't stop working. My daughters need shoes and other things."
Social worker Jazmin Rivera helps dozens of Spanish-speaking immigrants fill out paperwork weekly, and many are now seeking legal documents called powers of attorney so friends and others could care for their children.
"People are scared, and they want to be sure their kids are safe if something happens to them," said Rivera, a case manager at the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama.
Beason, R-Gardendale, has his doubts about how widespread such cases really are.
"I would do whatever it took for my family to stay with me," he said. "It's beyond my comprehension that you would just leave your children anywhere."
Alabama's law, regarded by many as the toughest in the U.S., was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature this year and signed by Gov. Robert Bentley. A federal judge blocked some parts of it but allowed key pieces to stand -- including a provision that allows police to hold suspected illegal immigrants without bond. On Friday, the U.S. Justice Department and civil rights groups asked a federal appeals court to block the law, saying it could lead to discrimination against even legal residents.
However, the law will remain in effect at least until Nov. 29, when the appeals court said it would hear oral arguments.
Immigrant parents say that leaves them little choice other than to seek out people to care for their children because they fear the youngsters -- many of whom are U.S. citizens -- will be left home alone or sent to foster care if they are suddenly nabbed under the law.
Cristian Gonzalez, 28, said she has informally asked the manager of the rental property where she lives to take care of her 10-year-old daughter should she and her husband be arrested because they are illegal immigrants. The girl, a U.S. citizen who has medals for making good grades, needs to finish school in America and is deeply rooted in Alabama, she said.
Gonzalez said their other three kids are too young to remain and will go back to Mexico with her and her husband even though they are U.S. citizens.
"We're afraid to go back to Mexico because of the drugs, the cartels and the killings," Gonzalez said. "And we are afraid to stay here because of the law."
Mexican authorities have struggled in the fight against drug cartels known for carrying out brutal killings as they try to tighten control over territory. Authorities say that country's drug war has claimed thousands of lives.
Under the law, police making traffic stops can question anyone suspected of being in the country illegally and jail them without bond if they lack proof of citizenship. Many police agencies say they have yet to begin enforcing the law because officers haven't been trained in all of its intricacies.
Still, fear runs deep among people living in the state without visas, passports, driver licenses and other documents.
Patino isn't sure what would happen to her kids if she is arrested. Neither is stay-at-home mom Cristian Carraon, who is in the country illegally yet is married to a U.S. citizen and has three children -- 8, 5 and 3 -- who also are citizens.
"My husband works from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. If I get deported, who is going to take care of my kids?" she said.
Illegal immigrants interviewed by The Associated Press repeatedly said they crossed the border illegally because they were poor and could not meet U.S. visa requirements to have stable jobs, bank accounts and property in Mexico. U.S. officials ask for those things to ensure people who obtain a visa have roots in Mexico and plan to return. Parents said they came to provide a better future than their children could ever have in Latin America.
Now, Lety Garcia and her husband are hoping the powers of attorney they signed for each other will allow the children to remain out of foster care should either or both be arrested.
"We are living day to day because we do not know what will happen tomorrow," Garcia, who identified herself as an illegal immigrant, said through a translator. "Every time I go out of my house I pray to God, `Help us come back."'
It's not just parents who are worried about their children. Young people fear what might happen to their parents.
Jose Perez's mother and father brought him into the U.S. from his native Mexico when he was a toddler, and he is now a 15-year-old high school student living in Alabama illegally. Perez -- with a Southern accent and dreams of becoming a nurse someday -- fears being forced to return to a country he doesn't know, and he is afraid what could happen to his parents if they are detained.
Perez already has seen the family of a good friend split up because some members were illegal residents and fled back to Mexico.
"It was horrible having to see a friend that I consider almost like a sister cry her eyes out as she is being forced to say goodbye to her little sister and her mom," said Perez, 15, who lives with his parents and older brother in suburban Birmingham.
As the lawsuits seeking to block the law play out in court, Maria Azamar is praying the law is stopped. Azamar, who said she is living in the U.S. illegally, already has had one daughter deported and now is caring for her 4-year-old granddaughter under a power of attorney document. The 40-year-old said it's tough explaining to the girl why her mother and friends are going back to Mexico.
"I don't want to tell her it's because we're not wanted," she said through a translator.