WORTHINGTON, MINN. — Eligio is trying to explain immigration law to his frightened 3-year-old son.
"He says, 'Trump es malo.' " Trump is bad. "I tell him, 'No. This is the law,' " Eligio said last week through a translator, his two small sons — born long after he entered the country without papers in search of work — snuggled against him in matching Vikings jerseys.
"He says, 'Then why does he want to take away our parents?' "
Worthington is a city of immigrants — thousands of them here legally and illegally — drawn to work at the packing plant or nearby livestock farms here on the southwest Minnesota prairie. This town of 13,000 people, where more than 40 percent of the population is Latino, is reeling from the Trump administration's new immigration rules. Now, immigrants worry, raids and mass deportations might be coming, not just for violent criminals but for anyone living in America without proper paperwork.
"Families are living in absolute fear," said the Rev. Jim Callahan, pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church, made up of about 1,000 families, more than half Latino and many of them undocumented.
Last week, around a table in the parish hall, Callahan huddled with a dozen community activists, lawyers, clergy, educators and translators to discuss how to help those families plan for the day Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents might knock on their door. Now is the time, they warn, for families to figure out who should take care of the children, the home, and the mortgage left behind if both parents are ultimately detained or deported.
Those are more than theoretical questions in a town that saw more than 200 workers arrested in a 2006 immigration sweep at the local pork processing plant. The election of Donald Trump, who railed against Mexican rapists and "bad hombres" on the campaign trail, has escalated fears.
St. Mary's responded by opening its doors, promising sanctuary for undocumented workers if immigration agents return to town. Parishioners now are quietly volunteering to open their homes as shelters if necessary, and to act as guardians for detainees' children.
The parish also is handing out stacks of wallet-sized cards with warnings in Spanish and English: Don't open the door to ICE without a warrant, don't answer any questions, don't give them your name.
"I am proud to be in this country, because this is a country of liberty," said Eligio. The Star Tribune is not using the last names of most undocumented workers interviewed for this story. He bounced his giggling 8-month-old son on his knee. "We don't have to be afraid. The only thing we are doing is working hard."
Worthington sits in the heart of Upper Midwest farm country, about 3 hours southwest of the Twin Cities. Thirty years ago, it was almost entirely white. Today, it's one of the most diverse communities in the state.
Worthington Mayor Mike Kuhle said many in town welcome the diversity.
That said, he added, "I do agree with President Trump's toughness on removing criminals — people who have committed violent crimes and drug crimes. We all want a safe place to live."
Trump won 61 percent of the vote in Nobles County, and 50 percent in Worthington, the county seat.
Leroy Vetsch, former treasurer of the Nobles County Republican Party who lives in nearby Brewster, said he thinks Trump is "on the right track" with the tougher enforcement measures, and that the real focus of the new policy is Islamic terrorism.
"These laws that Trump is trying to enforce are already on the books," he said. "He isn't doing anything beyond the law. I really don't know what all the hoopla is about."
Vetsch said he thinks undocumented workers are frightening their children unnecessarily.
"Just think of the anxiety that creates for them," Vetsch said.
Not everyone supported Callahan's decision to make St. Mary's a sanctuary church. Callahan watched donations from some longtime parishioners decline.
Kuhle said most residents "value our diverse population," while most undocumented workers try to find a legal way to remain.
"The vast majority of these people are working toward their citizenship. The process is just so long, and it can be expensive for them as well," he said.
No one knows how many undocumented immigrants live and work around Worthington, but Kuhle noted: "This is not 1930s Germany where we stop people and ask for their papers."
New Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has pledged that "there will be no mass deportations" as a result of the administration's new immigration rules. But the uncertainty weighs on undocumented immigrants and their children.
There are tears in the cafeteria at St. Mary's School, and wild rumors swirling around the playground about ICE agents cruising the streets in vans and imminent raids on the church.
Sixty-eight students attend the little parochial school, and more than one-third are Hispanic. Just in case ICE leaves her with a building full of children who can't go home, Principal Jackie Probst is stocking up on water and supplies.
"We just have to have faith," she tells worried children. "We're here to help you and we're here to protect you."
For third-grader Daisy Gabriel, 8, it's too late for reassurances. Her father, Jacobo Gabriel, is about to be deported. He has spent years and thousands of dollars in lawyer's fees trying to find a legal means to stay in the country he first entered as a teenager after fleeing the civil war in Guatemala.
Originally granted asylum, Gabriel was ordered to go home once the war ended. But by then, he was a husband and a father, with steady work at one of the local hog farms. He stayed, and several years ago, a traffic stop brought him to the attention of the immigration system. He is scheduled to be deported on May 1, leaving his wife and four children behind.
"My children are Americans," Gabriel said, through an interpreter. "What's going to happen to them?"
'It felt like I was dead'
Before Christmas, Callahan asked the St. Mary's kindergartners what they wanted from Santa.
One child told him: "I want my mom and dad to have papers."
Many undocumented workers have been trying to find a legal means to stay in the country for years. One couple spent thousands of dollars on attorneys, only to be deported, leaving two teenage sons behind.
"The hardest part was, they took me away from my heart. My children," said the boys' father, Chino, who was arrested at his own immigration hearing and spent months in detention. "It was the worst pain. It felt like I was dead."
Chino was deported to Guatemala. Six months later, armed agents surrounded the family car as his wife, Oly, was driving the children to school. Despite legal appeals, she was deported as well.
The couple's young daughter went with them while their sons stayed with an aunt in Worthington.
Two years later, they made the risky border crossing again and returned to Worthington so they could watch their oldest son graduate from high school. They sent their American-born daughter ahead, then made their way north, walking through the desert, hiding at night.
At one point, as border agents circled close, Chino suggested they surrender.
"No. We are not going to surrender," Oly told him. "I want to be with my child … I know some will tell me I broke the law," she added. "But for God, family is most important."