Given the chance to rescue a "vulnerable child," Maria, a fast-food worker from Wood Dale with a husband and two kids, was eager to help. So was her attorney, Terra Costa Howard, who underwent training specifically designed for these cases, and voluntarily used her own money and time to file all the necessary paperwork to have the boy live with Maria's family.
Then Maria, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who has been living in the United States for 11 years, got cold feet.
"Pretty much since Donald Trump won the presidency, we've been really scared," says the 29-year-old woman who wears a professional business dress and jacket to the Wood Dale Public Library to tell her story. Using a fake name to protect her identity and speaking through a Spanish interpreter, Maria says her family desperately wanted to help Jose, 17, her husband's sister's child. But she says she was scared that helping Jose might destroy her own family by bringing her and her undocumented husband to the attention of immigration officials, who could deport them back to Guatemala.
"Even for me, who does this work, what struck me is the fear, and the legitimate fear, they have," Howard says. "It's a real fear here in DuPage County. This is really happening."
The attorney tells of a recent DuPage County case where a stepdad was going to adopt his wife's child they had been raising. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrived at the courthouse, took the undocumented man into custody and began the deportation process.
In 1990, Congress passed the Special Immigrant Juveniles Status law to "help foreign children in the United States who have been abused, abandoned or neglected," and provide them a path to "live and work permanently in the United States." In some states that law applies to anyone under the age of 21.
Jose's parents in Guatemala neglected the boy and abandoned him when he was 5. He had been living with a relative and witnessing her abuse at the hands of her boyfriend, says Hillary Richardson, an attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. Jose traveled with a coyote (someone who smuggles immigrants across borders) from Guatemala, through Mexico and into the U.S., where authorities detained him.
Maria planned to get an order from an Illinois court granting her family custody of Jose, and allowing the teen to file a request for legal immigration.
"This is about helping vulnerable children," Richardson says, noting that many immigrants no longer feel safe doing that or reporting crimes against themselves and others.
"They've stepped back from participating in a civil society just out of fear, which is not misplaced fear," Richardson says, citing cases where undocumented immigrants who are not drug dealers or violent criminals are being deported under the new administration. "You, as a client, will have to decide. We can't tell them there is no risk to doing this."
The TRUST Act, which was passed by the Illinois Senate and could come up for a vote in the House as soon as today, would bar local law enforcement from engaging in immigration enforcement without first getting a warrant from a judge, and also would allow undocumented immigrants to go to courts, schools, hospitals and other public buildings without fear of being apprehended simply because they are in this country without the necessary documentation.
Suburban sponsors of the bill include State Sens. Cristina Castro of Elgin, Linda Holmes of Aurora, Kimberly A. Lightford of Westchester and Don Harmon of Oak Park, and Reps. Emanuel Chris Welch of Westchester, Sam Yingling of Round Lake Beach, Linda Chapa LaVia of Aurora, Stephanie A. Kifowit of Aurora, Anna Moeller of Elgin, Lou Lang of Skokie, all Democrats.
"It's been good to see that our state leaders recognize the pressure immigrant communities are under right now and actively engage in helping to make them safer," says Tara Tidwell Cullen, spokeswoman for the National Immigrant Justice Center.
Maria understands why her nephew made the trip. She did the same at 18, as soon as she finished high school.
"My parents couldn't give me the money to go to the university, and I heard the United States was a place of opportunity," remembers Maria, who says her hometown of Guatemala City suffered from extreme poverty and corruption. "In order to get a job, you had to be intimate with people in high positions of power."
Unwilling to do that, Maria and her boyfriend, now her husband, hired coyotes and made it to Illinois. They were married two years ago in Chicago, both have jobs and their daughters are both U.S. citizens. Maria says she wants Jose to have the life enjoyed by his cousins, but she is unwilling to put her family at risk.
"I can identify with my client and those fears," says Howard, whose husband and three teenage daughters met Maria and Jose, helped navigate the language differences and built up empathy for people caught up in the politics surrounding the law.
"Protecting kids didn't used to be a partisan issue," Richardson says.
"Family members are trying to do right for these kids," adds Howard, a former school board member and Girl Scout leader. "That's the important part. These are children."
Despite the setback, Jose got help.
"After this fell through, we discovered he has another aunt in California," Richardson says.
"He's a wonderful young man with a bright future," Howard says of Jose.
The number of Special Immigrant Juveniles Status cases has grown from 1,600 in 2010 to 15,100 during fiscal 2016, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The crush has created a two-year waiting list for applications to be processed, Richardson says.
"Since the election, families are more afraid," Richardson says. "But we're also getting more calls from people who are interested in helping."