Josefyna Nava was in middle school when she first learned the knock.
Seven beats, spaced in a rhythm shared with few.
“It’s a family thing. It’s our safety. If you don’t know the knock, we won’t let you in,” Nava says.
She is 24 now and still uses the knock every time she visits her mom and dad’s house in southwest Denver. She’s teaching it to her toddler.
“This is how we have to live,” she tells him, “so you need to know this.”
Nava, her four siblings and her parents, Jorge and Christina Zaldivar, are always on high alert, because Jorge, 42, is a non-citizen who crossed the border illegally 22 years ago, more than half a lifetime ago. The curtains stay closed and the doors stay locked at the Zaldivar home.
In their old house, also in Denver, they set up a secret, in-case-of-emergency crawl space beneath the stairs for Jorge, with a toilet, food pantry and space for a cot. The entry to the crawl space looked, Christina says, just like the rest of the wall, so it wouldn’t have been easily detected.
When they shopped some years ago for a new home, their realtor asked why the kids kept looking for hiding places and attics instead of scouting bedrooms and backyards.
“They kept saying, ‘We can hide him here, we can put him here,’” Christina recalls. “This is how my kids live.”
Jorge moved to the U.S. in 1997 from Mexico City and has been married 18 years to Christina, 39 and a U.S. citizen. They have two kids together, and Jorge raised Josefyna and two others as his own. He works in landscaping and she works at a community health clinic.
The family says it has been trying for many years to help Jorge gain citizenship. Those efforts have failed to this point, and Jorge has been in constant limbo. ICE first noticed him in 2008, Christina says, after he crashed his car on his way down from a roofing job in the mountains. She says a Jefferson County officer arrested him for driving without a valid license — Colorado started granting driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants in 2014 — and Jorge wound up in detention for three weeks.
He was released on bond from the immigrant detention center in Aurora, and was in and out of immigration court until 2012, when he received a deportation order. Since then he’s won a series of stays of removal, temporary work authorization, and he has been called in regularly for check-ins with immigration officials. He’s had eight of them in the last two years alone, Christina says, and another is scheduled for July 11. Before each, the family gathers and prepares for the prospect that he might not come home.
The family’s already high anxiety dramatically increased this past Friday, when President Trump declared targeted raids against people with deportation orders were coming Sunday to Denver and about a dozen other major cities. He walked the threat back in a tweet on Saturday, but said the raids could still take place in two weeks.
“People live their lives around their fear.” — Ana Temu, ACLU of Colorado
Christina says her family is in “panic mode.” It’s clear, as she runs aloud through a myriad of frantic text threads and posts in Facebook groups she’s in, that many other families in Colorado are feeling the same way. There are about 180,000 unauthorized immigrants in the state, according to the Pew Research Center.
Alethea Smock, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Colorado, said her office has no working estimate of how many people are living in the state with deportation orders.
Asked whether ICE plans to execute any raids or otherwise become more proactive in detaining people in the coming weeks in Colorado, Smock said in a statement, “ICE deportation officers carry out targeted enforcement operations daily nationwide as part of the agency’s ongoing efforts to protect the nation, uphold public safety, and protect the integrity of our immigration laws and border controls.”
She added, “During targeted enforcement operations, ICE officers frequently encounter other aliens illegally present in the United States. These aliens are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and, when appropriate, they are arrested by ICE officers.”
Supporting advocates and organizations, which also generally stay on high alert, have activated special measures to prepare for possible raids. They’re holding extra trainings, spreading “know your rights” guides on social media and expanding the network of churches and residences willing to open basements, farmland and spare rooms for people who may need to take sanctuary or go into hiding.
Jennifer Piper, an organizer with the American Friends Service Committee, said she had five faith congregations signed up as potential sanctuaries before Trump’s threat. Now, 13 congregations have expressed willingness to take in 50-100 people at a time.
“I think there’s a deep desire to be able to do something,” said Rev. Amanda Henderson, who directs the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado.
The Colorado Rapid Response Network, a 24-hour hotline, dispatch and resource center for immigrants and witnesses, “has been blowing up,” said Piper’s colleague Jordan Garcia.
Ana Temu, immigration campaigns coordinator with the ACLU of Colorado, says that before the raids, “there was a medium-level threat that you might encounter ICE at the traditional places — courts, jails, probation offices.
“Now, people are scared to turn the corner. People are scared to go to the mall, because they know ICE could be active out there. Some people don’t come out unless it’s daylight. People choose not to drive and have to find other ways to get their kids to school, to go to work, to get their kids to the doctor. People live their lives around their fear.”
Christina and Jorge certainly do. They’re at the kitchen table on Tuesday and she, a Colorado native of indigenous descent, is doing most of the talking. Jorge sits with his arms crossed and head bowed.
She says that when Jorge has his check-ins, it’s as if he’s in a hospital bed with the family standing around him, bracing for the moment he might be taken off life support. A raid, she says, would feel more like a car crash.
A few years ago, when the check-ins started, the family packed a small blue backpack with emergency supplies: phone charger, deodorant, hair gel, tissues, toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, extra batteries, a list of medication he needs to treat his diabetes, a family photo. Jorge would take this bag with him in the event of an emergency.
Christina still cannot believe that such doomsday prepping is even necessary.
“What good is everything our forefathers fought for?” she says, through tears. “And they’re not even my forefathers. My people (Southern Ute and Navajo) were already here. They stole this from my people. They’ve taken more than enough from me. Why do I have to give up my husband, too?”
The answer, much as she hates to think about it, is that Jorge might be deported because he entered the country illegally, and, 22 years later, has had no luck remedying that. He has no current, valid stay of removal, making him a possible target should immigrant enforcement ramp up in the way Trump has said it might.
“They’ve taken more than enough from me. Why do I have to give up my husband, too?” — Christina Zaldivar
Jorge insists his present situation is the result of an administrative error made more than 10 years ago by a consulate official, and, next to the blue bag, the family keeps an inch-thick folder with documentation of his case and what they say is proof it’s been mishandled. They estimate they’ve spent $200,000 over the years, mostly on forms, court and filing fees, and on various attorneys. Last year they set up a crowdfunding campaign to help cover the costs.
He was at work Friday when his wife called to tell him about the raids Trump had promised. Since then, he’s made a habit of checking in with Christina every time he gets in the car or takes lunch.
For most of the interview, she and Josefyna are either teary or outright sobbing. Jorge’s eyes well up at one point.
“How can I feel, seeing my whole family distressed?” he says in Spanish. “It breaks my heart.
He adds, “A lot of people who like what President Trump is doing, they don’t think about all the people in my situation.”
The ACLU’s Temu has been extra busy lately checking in with families, monitoring online groups and arranging covert meet-ups. They spread the word about these events carefully — through text messages, closed Facebook groups and Spanish-language media outlets. At the meetings, advocates remind family members of their rights and have people rehearse “magic phrases” to use in the event ICE shows up at the door: Have I done anything wrong? Am I free to go? What charges are being held against me? I’d like to remain silent. I’d like to speak to my lawyer before signing anything.
Temu says she has to pause every now and then to take stock of what it means that she and others have to be so careful in their coordination and of what it means that so many churches and homeowners around the state are preparing to potentially take people in.
“We’re so much in survival mode, making sure that people are OK,” she says. “But this is an underground network. This is a modern-day underground railroad, we’re seeing modern concentration camps. It takes hearing that out loud for it to click that, yes, we are living this way.”
Christina says that what is especially frightening to her and her family is how quickly things can change. A single tweet or off-hand remark from Trump can throw their lives into chaos. They don’t know if Trump meant what he said about raids last week, or if he meant it when he said the raids were postponed two weeks. They have no idea if Jorge will be targeted at all. And that uncertainty, they say, is unbearable.
Jorge has tried to stay busy and positive. He built a treehouse in the backyard and redid some of the patio flooring. When he lost his old job, he got a new one, and he now goes to work every day and budgets meticulously.
Josefyna says it destroys her to see him in such peril.
“My dad came, working hard, from nothing. All the money he’s put into this family,” she says, gesturing toward the blue bag, “for him to have to leave with, what, $10 worth of stuff?”
Almost wailing now, she adds, “You can’t say, ‘Give me your hungry, give me your tired, give me your weak,’ so that you can throw them in cages and treat them like animals. It’s not right. It’s not America. We’re supposed to help each other.”