Hundreds of parents in Alabama who fear being rounded up at any time and jailed or deported under the state's draconian new immigration law are making legal arrangements to have their children placed in the care of relatives or friends.
Lawyers working with Hispanic communities throughout Alabama report a huge surge in recent days in approaches from Hispanic families so desperate about the threat posed by the new law that they are preparing for the worst: sudden separation from their own children. They are drawing up power of attorney letters – documents usually applied to property or business assets, but in Alabama almost exclusively now used for the safe keeping of children.
"This is a real human rights crisis," said Linton Joaquin of the National Immigration Law Center. "There's widespread panic, and though parents don't want to abandon their children they are seeking guardianships for them."
Shay Farley, legal director of a collective of Alabama lawyers called Appleseed, says they have already drawn up more than 200 power of attorney papers in just one town, Tuscaloosa. A similar clamour for legal help is reported across the state.
"These papers are normally designed to help people protect their main assets, and there can be no greater asset than children," Farley said.
Trini, an Hispanic mother who did not want to give her last name, took up power of attorney last week. She has arranged for her her two sons, aged 10 and 13, to be cared for by her niece, who is a US citizen.
"I'm afraid I could disappear without anyone knowing what's happened to me," she said. "I don't speak English well, so maybe the police won't understand me and who knows what would happen to me in jail."
Trini is in discussions with her family about leaving Alabama. But she is torn, because she does not want to take her sons, who were born in America and thus have US citizenship, out of school.
"They have a right to go to school. They are doing so well there. They play the trumpet and violin. That's why we're still here – because of the boys, because of their education."
Her eldest son, Jesus, said the new law was making him nervous and depressed. "At school we were taught about the Civil Rights period. This is the same thing – it's happening again," he said.
"I make good grades, so does my brother. We are normally at the top of our class. I try my hardest to be good. The people making this law, they need to put themselves in our shoes and think about how they're splitting families."
Hispanic parents are fearful about what would happen to their kids should they be rounded up under the new law. HB56 came into force at the end of September, and under its provisions police officers are required to check the immigration status of anyone they stop where there is a "reasonable suspicion" that the person might be undocumented.
Should the individual fail to produce valid immigration papers, they can be instantly sent to jail at the start of deportation proceedings.
Five states have now passed immigration laws similar to HB56, but Alabama is the only one that has been allowed by the courts to put elements of the law into effect. The federal Department of Justice, as well as a local coalition of groups and individuals, are both challenging the new law in the US appeals court for the 11th circuit that covers Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
The lawsuits argue that Alabama's clampdown on undocumented immigrants should not be allowed to proceed pending a ruling by the US supreme court, the highest court in the nation, on the general principle of whether the individual states or the federal government should determine immigration policy.
"Parents fear they are going to be picked up under the new laws and immediately deported – in essence they will be 'disappeared'. So they want to make arrangements to ensure that their children will be safe," said Olivia Turner of the Alabama branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Erica Suarez, 37, took out a power of attorney three days ago, vesting responsibility for her nine-year-old son should she be rounded up in her uncle, a US citizen. Suarez and her husband moved to Birmingham, Alabama from Argentina in 1998, staying in America after their visa expired. Over the past 13 years they've tried many times to acquire citizenship themselves, without success.
"I'm very scared," Suarez said. "The police can stop me and ask for my status, and if I don't have a driving licence take me to jail for 30 days. What happens to my son in that time?"
She said she decided to vest the power of attorney in her uncle because she didn't want her son going into a state-run home should she be picked up. Since the law came into effect on 28 September, Suarez has not left her house for fear of being detected, and her husband, who works as a landscape artist, no longer drives for similar reasons.
"This is so sad," Suarez said, crying on the telephone. "We came here for a better life, and were happy here. It's hard to go back – I have no home there, no job there. There's nothing to go back to."
Her son, who is not being named for his own safety, said: "I don't want to leave this state. I like it here, and I have lots of friends."
The boy was born in America and thus is a US citizen. Asked why he thinks the new law was introduced, he replied: "They don't want Hispanics here."
Rosa Toussaint Ortiz has agreed to become guardian to the three children of an undocumented mother in her town of Huntsville. Toussaint has US citizenship and works as a community services chaplain in the town.
She says she is not looking forward to the possibility of caring for three young children, but sees it as her duty. "I'm a very busy person and it would be very tough to have to care for them. But what else can I do? If I was in this situation I would want someone else to do this for me. So there's no choice."