Children were laughing and dodging their parents as they ran between tables, where at least three generations of Latino families were eating and socializing after the weekly Spanish-language Mass.
Outside, men swapped tales as they flipped tortillas on a grill.
In the cafeteria, there was an eerie quiet.
There, two by two at tables spread throughout the room, sat lawyers and interpreters waiting to help families young and old prepare for an event none of them want, but all of them fear: deportation.
Ever since the election of President Donald Trump, his executive orders barring certain immigrants and refugees, his tough talk about the wall along the Mexican border, and the recent immigration raids separating undocumented immigrants from their children, fear has risen in Latino communities like a drumbeat rising to crescendo.
A young couple sit down at Table 15 across from lawyer Sarah Pleban, who specializes in guardianship law. The mother, with long, jet-black hair, holds her toddler, whose pink-flower bows match the color of the balloon she grasps like it’s her most important possession. Dad has rugged good looks and hands that work for a living. They could come out of central casting for a leading couple on a Mexican telenovela on Univision or Telemundo.
“If the bad thing happens,” Pleban says, waiting for her interpreter to repeat the phrase in Spanish, “If you get detained, you need to say: ‘I want an attorney,’ and you need to say it in English.”
First the husband, then his wife, practice saying the phrase.
“I want an attorney.”
Pleban is one of more than a dozen St. Louis-area lawyers volunteering to help undocumented immigrants all over the region sign power-of-attorney paperwork so if parents get separated from their children, a friend or relative has the legal right to care for the children — many of whom are American citizens — until they can be reunited. The seminars were started by Catholic legal assistance, the Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project and Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates as a direct result of the more aggressive stance taken by immigration officials since the election of Trump. In some cases, the administration has targeted undocumented immigrants who had no criminal records and were working and paying taxes and waiting for the day when Congress would fix a broken system and give them a path to citizenship.
Some of the families fearing deportation allowed me to sit with them as they received legal advice about protecting their children and their assets, as long as I didn’t use their names.
One mother can’t stop crying.
She dabs her eyes with a tissue in between short answers of “sí” with nods that she understands.
“I want an attorney,” she says in high-pitched English.
She and her husband have four children. Three are American citizens. The oldest, 18, is severely mentally disabled. They live in Warren County, own a mobile home and cars, all paid off. They have a friend with them who used to volunteer at their oldest daughter’s school. She has offered to be the temporary guardian of three of their children, and promises to take them to Mexico if the couple are ever deported.
“I know this is scary for you,” Pleban says. “We hope it never happens. I am so sorry that you are frightened.”
The couple’s friend has known them for most of the time they have been in the U.S. They came from Mexico about 12 years ago. They work hard, she says, raise their children, contribute to the community.
“These are good people,” she says.
She puts her arm around her friend, the undocumented immigrant mother, and promises that if the “bad thing” ever happens, she’ll take care of her children, gather the money and bring them to Mexico.
None of the families want that to happen.
They want to stay here, in the United States, the country that held out the dream that they could travel here and improve their lives. Now they are signing documents, hoping the government doesn’t take their children away.
“I hope you never need these,” Pleban says as she slides the legal paperwork across the table.
The couple get up and follow another lawyer to a copying machine.
Two more immigrants sit down, not knowing what lies ahead.