Mario Mendoza was serving as police chief in the Honduran port city La Ceiba when he noticed drug cartel members stalking him. Eventually, they tried to assassinate him, he said.
“My life was in danger, and the lives of my wife and my children were in danger,” said Mendoza, now 46.
So he came to the United States and applied for asylum. He gathered evidence of the threats he faced back home and hired a lawyer to file the application, he said. But the lawyer missed his deadline, and a deportation order was put out against Mendoza.
That was 15 years ago. Mendoza and his family have been living “under the radar” in various parts of the New Orleans area since then. He and his wife do construction work and clean houses and hotels. He said they have paid income taxes, using a tax identification number from the IRS in place of a Social Security number.
Now, Mendoza worries the life he has created here may be in jeopardy. Under policy changes announced by President Donald Trump, anyone with a prior deportation order is now a "top priority" for removal by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division.
“I guess ... Mr. Trump would consider me to be a criminal," Mendoza said. "But I don’t consider myself to be a criminal.”
Trump’s policy marks a change from the guidelines that were adopted toward the end of the Barack Obama administration, but it’s not so different from rules that were in place during Obama’s first five years, when immigration agents had considerable discretion over whether to seek a person's removal.
During that time, Obama earned the derisive nickname "Deporter in Chief" among immigration advocates. His administration oversaw nearly 2.5 million deportations, easily the most of any presidency.
But Obama took a softer line in his last few years in office. In a 2014 executive order, he directed Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, to prioritize deportation efforts against immigrants living in the country illegally who posed "threats to national security, border security and public safety," such as gang members, convicted felons and those charged with aggravated felonies.
Obama’s revisions also targeted for deportation people newly apprehended at the border. But it largely called for leaving alone millions of people who, like Mendoza, had managed to build a life in the U.S. without being accused of any serious crimes.
As of 2014, there were roughly 30,000 immigrants living illegally in the New Orleans metro area, according to the latest data available from the Pew Research Center.
Those with an increased risk of deportation under the new rules are families like Mendoza's, who have lived for years under deportation orders, as well as those who have been released under supervision from detention facilities. It’s not clear how many local immigrants fall into those categories.
Trump stance defended
Trump's tougher stance on immigration has attracted plenty of support from voters and politicians who worry the country's borders aren't being properly defended, including most of Louisiana's congressional delegation.
For instance, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, of Metairie, told The Advocate through a spokesman that the president’s orders are “important” for national security.
“As the great-grandson of Italians who came here to make a better life for their family, Rep. Scalise has the greatest appreciation for the fact that we are a nation of immigrants,” his office said in a prepared statement. “We are also a nation of laws, and so-called ‘sanctuary city’ policies not only represent a direct affront to the rule of law, they create dangerous gaps in our criminal justice system that put Americans at risk.”
Other leading Louisiana Republicans have also spoken out in favor of Trump’s policies, including Attorney General Jeff Landry, who said that “we have an illegal immigration problem across the country and certainly in Louisiana.”
But so far, the actual impact of the new rules remains uncertain in Louisiana. Trump may have to beef up the federal agencies involved in deporting people in order to carry out his plans — which he has promised to do — or else get more cooperation from local law enforcement, something New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has vowed to resist.
Trump, in turn, has promised to punish mayors who don’t rescind their “sanctuary city” policies. While some areas embrace that label, Landrieu has disputed that New Orleans falls in that category.
And while the language of Trump’s executive orders eliminates the tiered priority system implemented by Obama in 2014, Trump has repeatedly said that his focus is to remove people who are committing crimes while in this country. That was the gist of the Obama order.
"The crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise," Trump tweeted after immigration officials carried out a series of "targeted enforcements," or raids, in various U.S. cities last week. "Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!"
While those raids prompted fear in some immigrant communities that a new regime had begun, federal officials said the raids were merely a continuation of existing policy.
The attention the raids drew highlights the fact that the president's policy changes — and, perhaps even more, his rhetoric — have put many immigrants living in the country illegally on guard.
They’re beginning to take proactive steps to prepare for bad news. For instance, advocates for immigrants have ramped up efforts to organize and educate families on ways to avoid being discovered by authorities. And they are giving instructions on what to do in “worst-case scenarios,” such as being placed in detention facilities without being given a chance to see or talk to family members.
Mendoza, and his wife, Leticia Casildo-Mendoza, said they are being vigilant.
“I know there are lot of people who are right now feeling a lot of anxiety and feeling panic,” Casildo-Mendoza said.
Sarah Mendoza, the family's 9-year-old daughter, said, “Right now, my worst fear is losing my family."
Audrey Stewart, the interim managing director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrants and minority groups, has described an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty in the air.
Stewart is particularly concerned about 50 to 100 workers that the center has helped get out of ICE detention before. Those workers are required to check in regularly with immigration officials as a condition of their release, and she worries they could be marked for deportation.
People can end up in ICE custody for various reasons, Stewart said. One way is to get arrested by local or state law enforcement. Another is to be caught during an ICE raid.
Among those now required to check in with ICE is Jose Isaias Lara Serrano, who was detained in a raid and booked on illegal re-entry into the country. Advocates persuaded his prosecutor to let him go, saying he had to care for a sick infant.
But it appears he could be deported under the new rules, which say that an immigration violation alone could be enough to qualify for prioritized deportation.
Under the late-term Obama rules, those who had committed three or more misdemeanor offenses or were convicted of domestic violence, DUI or drug trafficking were labeled as "priority two" for deportation. Last in line for deportation — “priority three” — were those who arrived after Jan. 1, 2014.
Experts say those who didn't qualify as a top priority were unlikely to get deported. Now it’s less clear what will happen to them.
“Folks are now going into the ICE office not knowing whether they’ll walk out or not,” Stewart said.
Immigration attorney Michael W. Gahagan said he and others also fear that ICE may step up raids if Trump makes good on his pledge to put 10,000 more immigration officers on the streets.
However, it remains to be seen whether deportations will actually increase under Trump.
Data show that between 2009 and 2015, the Obama administration removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders. Those numbers don't include people who were turned away at the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. By comparison, just over 2 million people were deported in eight years under President George W. Bush.
During the most recent fiscal year, roughly 3,840 people were ordered deported by the federal immigration courts in Louisiana. That represented 59 percent of the cases that the courts handled that year, according to TRAC Immigration, a nonprofit group that documents immigration cases in the U.S.
In 2007, before Obama became president, 7,548 people were ordered deported by Louisiana immigration courts. That total represented 96 percent of the cases that came before them.
If there is a sudden influx of immigration cases based on Trump’s policy shift, it’s not clear how it will be handled by local courts. According to TRAC, there is a backlog of 6,530 cases pending before the court in New Orleans, which takes cases from all over the state but is overseen by a single judge, Joseph B. La Rocca.
“The crystal ball is foggy,” said Susan Long, the co-director and co-founder of TRAC. “But the backlog is just continuing to go up and up and up.”
‘Don’t open the door’
Every week, the Congress of Day Laborers — an arm of the Workers’ Center for Racial Justice that focuses on immigrants — meets in a church in New Orleans. The group counsels hundreds of members like Mendoza and Serrano about their constitutional rights and how to avoid deportation.
They are told that immigrants living in the country illegally cannot be subjected to unreasonable searches, for example, and that they have a right to criminal defense.
Knowing those rights can make a difference. Gahagan frequently advises clients not to open the door for any agents who don’t have warrants.
“Normally what they do, is when somebody is ordered deported and didn’t leave, ICE agents find them and then knock on the door early in the morning when everyone is sleepy,” Gahagan said. “A lot of time immigrants don’t know they can refuse to open the door, and when they do, agents pour in with tactical gear.”
Lawyers and advocates also discuss contingency plans.
Casildo-Mendoza and others have started preparing power-of-attorney documents for family members and close friends, for example. That way, their children won’t be placed in foster care if the parents are deported back to Honduras.
"We have had to think about the worst possible scenario," Casildo-Mendoza said.