Note: Names in this article have been changed.
Eight-year-old Maria wears her hair braided and has bright pink shoelaces on her sneakers. But what she did Wednesday was quite grown-up.
It was 6:30 a.m. when Maria heard knocking at the door of her suburban American home as she was getting ready for school. The second-grader yanked the door wide open and came face-to-face with eight police officers.
"I said, 'Who are you?'" Maria later recounted. "And they said, 'We can't tell you our names. Is there an adult here?'"
Immigration Control Enforcement (ICE) agents were looking for undocumented immigrants living in the house.
The Obama administration earlier this month began a series of raids to deport illegal immigrants.
The Obama administration earlier this month began a surge of raids to deport illegal immigrants, leaving children afraid to answer their door. (C. Presutti/VOA)
Agents from ICE conducted several days of what they call "enforcement actions," or intensive raids, concentrated in the southern states of Georgia, Texas and North Carolina.
They detained 121 Mexican and Central American immigrants who crossed the U.S. border illegally with children, then stayed beyond their deportation orders and exhausted all legal recourse.
The U.S. government flew 77 of them back to their homeland on repatriation flights to Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The operation lasted three days.
Fewer illegal immigrants
A new study by the Center for Migration Studies of New York shows the number of illegal immigrants declining in the U.S. since 2008 to fewer than 11 million in 2014. The center says its survey shows that fewer immigrants arriving from Mexico offset the greater numbers coming from Central America.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who led the most recent raids, released a statement detailing the Southwest Border Security effort: "As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration; if you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values."
White House Spokesman Josh Earnest says the administration's priority has been removing criminals. But another focus is maintaining security along the Southwest border, which meant removing recent immigrants who crossed illegally. Earnest said that doesn't mean ignoring due process.
"Each of these individuals is considered on a case-by-case basis for any sort of humanitarian or asylum claims they may have to make,” he said. “And their legal remedies are exhausted before they are deported."
Video of the surge released by ICE shows mainly women holding the hands of children, boarding jet airplanes, with boxed meals to eat during the flight.
Hiding from agents
Maria knew exactly why the agents were at her door.
"I was trying to be brave," she said, "because I know that they will never get my family because they hasn't done anything bad."
But Maria's Aunt Sofia is in the U.S. illegally.
A recent spate of immigration raids have left families scared of opening the door or leaving their home. (C. Presutti/VOA)
In an exclusive interview with VOA only hours after the raid, Sofia said she worried about getting separated from her sons.
"I thought they were going to enter the room with my children there and take me," she said.
Agents went room to room, but never checked the basement where Sofia huddled on her bed with her three babies — ages 5, 3, and 6 months.
The raid — not part of the recent surge, but a regular enforcement action — left her fearful to walk out of her house.
"I'm not even going to the grocery store anymore,” she said. “I'm scared to go. I would always take my children to the park nearby, but I am afraid to go there now. "
Sofia and her sister arrived in the United States from Guatemala 10 years ago, intending to build a better life for their parents back home.
Sofia still sends money back to her mom and dad. She takes care of the children and doesn't work anymore, but her husband does. Their children are U.S. citizens because they were born here. But Sofia is illegal and can be deported back to Guatemala at any time.
'Know Your Rights' cards
Several immigration advocate organizations like CARECEN, a Central American Resource Center for low- to moderate-income Latinos, have started holding legal seminars.
The organizers hand out "Know Your Rights" cards. Printed on business cardstock, the cards are written in Spanish on one side and English on the other.
In part they read, "I do not wish to speak with you, answer your questions, or sign or hand you any documents based on my 5th Amendment rights. ... I do not give you permission to enter my home based on my 4th amendment rights under the United States Constitution, unless you have a warrant."
Maria does not plan to let things get to the point of handing out cards.
"I have learned to never open the door and to look out the window," she said.
When representatives of the immigration advocacy group, CASA, came to Maria's house after the raid to provide assistance, they knocked repeatedly, but no one answered.
The family would not open the door, for fear ICE had returned.