- Associated Press - Monday, January 1, 2018

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The courtyard at Grace United Methodist Church in Mid-City is a pleasant enough spot to pass the time, with a cluster of palm trees and small wrought iron tables and chairs.

But for El Salvador native Jose Torres, the patch of ground is also the only place, other than the church’s roof, where he can get a little air and sunlight.

It’s now been more than 40 days and nights since Torres moved into the church, figuring federal immigration authorities wouldn’t come after him there.

He’s one of thousands of people in the New Orleans area who are in the country illegally and who fear the stepped-up immigration enforcement brought by President Donald Trump’s administration.

“I feel liberty, but I don’t actually have it,” Torres said of his garden refuge. “My liberty ends at the door.”

The risk for Torres is real enough. There’s been a major spike in deportations from Louisiana and the four other Southern states covered by the New Orleans field office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A total of 9,471 immigrants living in those states illegally were deported in fiscal year 2017, which ended in October, according to statistics provided by federal immigration officials.

That was nearly seven times the number of deportations in 2016, and more than the total of the three prior years combined. Nationally, the figures are up as well, although to a lesser degree.

Under Trump, ICE agents have been instructed to prioritize all immigration cases, a departure from the tiered system that prevailed under former President Barack Obama, when the agency prioritized deporting immigrants who posed “threats to national security, border security and public safety,” such as gang members, convicted felons and those charged with aggravated felonies.

For Trump, the shift marks the fulfillment of a promise during his campaign to make immigration enforcement a central focus of his presidency. He signed several executive orders within months of taking office that not only expanded the definition of “priority” for ICE, but also threatened to strip funding from cities that didn’t cooperate.

Actually, until new guidelines were adopted toward the end of the Obama administration, immigration agents had considerable discretion over whether to seek a person’s removal, and his administration oversaw nearly 2.5 million deportations.

Trump’s tougher stance has attracted plenty of support from voters and politicians - including most of Louisiana’s congressional delegation - who worry that unauthorized immigration threatens national security and hurts local job seekers.

State Attorney General Jeff Landry has said that “we have an illegal immigration problem across the country and certainly in Louisiana.”

Most of the recent removals in this region have involved people with criminal records. But more than 3,300 immigrants removed hadn’t been found guilty of a crime, and local advocates have hotly contested policies that target people many say pose no danger to society.

Such advocates say the new policies are preventing people from contacting police to report crimes, are causing children to miss school or do poorly there, and could even prevent regions from rebuilding as quickly after future national disasters.

“We’re seeing a crisis hitting our community, one that’s going to have ripple effects,” said Chloe Sigal, an organizer with the Congress of Day Laborers. “When one community suffers, there are repercussions for all of us.”

Torres has taken more extreme measures than most in trying to evade ICE agents. In taking refuge at the church, he’s relying on a federal policy that discourages making immigration arrests at churches, schools, hospitals and large gatherings such as protests.

Thomas Byrd, an ICE spokesman, wouldn’t comment on any individual case but said that agents are instructed to generally avoid “sensitive” areas. “It takes very high-level clearance to be able to do that,” he said.

Torres is protected now, but he has no idea how long he’ll be able to dodge deportation, or how long that will require him to remain largely isolated from the family he hoped to stay near in the first place.

The 32-year-old has been living in the United States illegally for more than a decade. He came to New Orleans during the construction boom that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

He’s not alone. The area saw an influx of immigrants after Katrina. The latest Pew Research Center data show that by 2014, there were roughly 30,000 immigrants living illegally in the New Orleans metro area.

Unlike some who have lived “under the radar,” Torres has been dealing with the authorities since his arrival in America.

Announcing his decision to live at Grace United last month, he recalled a weeks-long trip on freight trains through Mexico and a swim across the Rio Grande River. He said he was detained immediately, released and then forced into unpaid labor by a human trafficker, which prevented him from challenging a deportation order in immigration court.

Then, in 2013, he was arrested for drunk driving. Ultimately, he was granted a stay to remain in the U.S. because of his daughters, according to the Congress of Day Laborers. But that was before the latest policy shift set in.

His last check-in with ICE left him worrying his deportation was imminent. He was told to buy a ticket back to El Salvador.

Before November, Torres had been focused on work and family. Standing in the church’s sanctuary this week, he described how he slept next to a hospital bed for months after his daughter Kimberly was born prematurely and had to be treated for the seizure disorder she still has.

There were bright moments, too, such as when he helped create a “safe space” where day laborers can seek work in Gretna.

Now, things look bleak, Torres said. His wife spends her days caring for Kimberly, who is 2, and 8-year-old Julissa, and doesn’t have a job. Nor is he able to work to provide for them.

He tries to stay optimistic. He spends time helping the church’s maintenance crew, and on Tuesdays he cooks for a community dinner hosted regularly by the church. He also attends the Congress of Day Laborers meetings held in the sanctuary.

And he always looks forward to the weekends when his wife and kids travel from Gretna to be with him.

“It’s very difficult to be in this situation, but I’m doing this because I want to be with them when I can,” Torres said. “Other fathers are in prison or have been deported and can’t see their kids. This is different.”

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