Nearly two months have passed since President Donald Trump issued his sweeping crackdown on illegal immigration.
Ever since, immigration lawyers in metro Phoenix have been advising children who are U.S. citizens, but whose parents are in the country illegally, to apply for legal guardianship and power of attorney. If they don’t, and they don’t have other relatives in the country legally, they may end up in foster care, attorneys have warned.
Has there been a rush to protect these children? It's not clear. But some worry that families are being taken advantage of in the process.
Maricopa County Superior Court statistics actually show a decrease in custody applications since Trump took office.
From January 25 through the end of February, 138 people petitioned the court for guardianship; another 156 sought temporary custody in family court. That’s a total of 289 custody applications in Maricopa County since Trump’s executive order.
By comparison, for the same period in 2016, families sought changes in custody 337 times.
That means custody applications fell 14 percent from the same period a year before.
Similar patterns emerge by comparing the first two months of the year with the last two of the previous one. There’s no indication of any Trump effect in the court filings despite two high-profile cases of immigrant parents being deported.
In February, Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos was deported, leaving her two teenage children behind. Their father is still in the U.S., but he also is undocumented, leaving an uncertain future for their children. In early March, Juan Carlos Fomperosa Garcia was sent back to Mexico. The single father has three children who are U.S. citizens.
Immigration advocates are not surprised that there hasn't been an increase of filings. The courts don’t record power of attorney letters. Those are notarized and kept by the two parties, the family ceding authority and the one assuming it, plus their attorneys.
There are no easy ways to measure that, but Abril Gallardo, communications director at the Arizona branch of community organizing group LUCHA, says her office has definitely seen an uptick.
“We started seeing more and more people asking about power of attorney,” Gallardo said.
Immigration and family law attorney Daniel Rodriguez agrees. He describes a dramatic trend: the real Trump effect.
Before this year, he would see one case a year in which a client sought power of attorney. Since the executive order, it’s been more like one a day.
“If I were to guess, what I’m getting through my door is at the low end of what other law firms are seeing,” Rodriguez said, noting he runs a small firm and he’s taking a more cautious approach to cases.
“It’s important for people to spend time getting more information. Some people are charging up to $500 for a power of attorney letter. That’s just theft,” Rodriguez said. “Attorneys are taking advantage of people freaking out.”
He says he’s starting to advise clients that they don’t always need to transfer power of attorney, or in all areas. With a little training, they could draft the documents themselves, so he’s started organizing workshops instead.
That’s what LUCHA, the ACLU, and others have been doing, too.
In the last two months, LUCHA has helped seven undocumented families get power-of-attorney letters for their American-citizen kids, Gallardo said. The organization also held an informational meeting for 60 more people who were curious.
Most letters ensure that recipients make decisions about school, health care, or finances for their kids without retaining full custody. Typically, the letters are good for about six months only. Then, families renew them, if necessary.
It’s a big step for parents to grant full legal custody over their children, even for parents facing deportation.
“If I were a parent who was undocumented I would not want to give legal guardianship to someone,” Gallardo said. “I would only do that if I never planned to take care of them.”
Rodriguez agrees, and both expect the caseload of guardianship cases to remain unchanged.
Rodriguez says he only drafts letters for families that are in the riskiest situations. Those involve a single parent, or both parents, facing likely deportation in a family in which the kids have no relatives to turn to.
“People don’t need guardianships or custody orders,” he said, adding that handing over power of attorney for family finances can, in many cases, invite fraud or theft.
“Immigrant families need to take a step back and realize that the reaction is a part of Trump’s plan to sow fear,” Rodriguez said. “Live your life.”