These immigrants live in fear. Leaders sympathize, but say there’s little they can do

Sunrise resident Teresa Sarmiento, 85, and son, Miguel Sarmiento, 60, of Kendall join an immigrants-rights rally outside Broward Transitional Center in January.
Sunrise resident Teresa Sarmiento, 85, and son, Miguel Sarmiento, 60, of Kendall join an immigrants-rights rally outside Broward Transitional Center in January.

As a Brazilian child living in the United States with immigration papers, Bruno Torquato recalled, he had plenty of things to worry about. Alone in the house at night — his parents were always off working on one of the several jobs they held to keep the family’s head above water — Bruno feared cops as much as he did robbers.

“If I heard a noise in house at night, I had to run to the neighbors,” he said. “I couldn’t call somebody, I couldn’t call the police. We feared, constantly, being deported. We stayed away from the police.”

Even so, he added, Bruno — now 32 and a legal permanent resident of the United States — considered himself much luckier than a lot of the undocumented kids he hung around with. One, a Haitian, was arrested for something he didn’t do and pleaded guilty to avoid jail, only to be deported.

“They sent him back to a country he left at the age of 3,” Bruno recounted. “He doesn’t speak Creole...They just shipped him off, basically, to die.”

A crowd of about 100 people, including a handful of Broward County officials, listened raptly — and, in a few cases, tearfully — as Bruno told his story Wednesday night during a forum on immigration at the Fort Lauderdale library on Sunrise Boulevard.

He was one of eight immigrants who shared chilling tales of how the lack of legal status left them vulnerable to criminal victimization and legal exploitation.

“It’s easy to dehumanize us when you only hear numbers and statistics,” said Alex Salgado, 25, a registered diet technician who was born in Honduras. “But I’m here to tell you there’s a story behind each number.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to Miami on Wednesday to deliver a stark warning on the dangers of “criminal aliens” and praised the county’s mayor for being the only big-city leader to abandon “sanctuary” protections and detain local inmates

In his case, it involves a single mom who “has been working at jobs most Americans overlook, at wages most people would consider offensive.” She eventually got them a temporary immigration status that allowed them to stay in the United States legally, and he earned a college degree.

But now the federal government seems poised to end the immigration program known as temporary protected status, sending Alex back to a country he left at age 3 — a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, a country he said terrifies him.

“Persecuting us won’t make this country great,” he said, pleadingly. “It won’t make your lives better in any way.”

But living in a legal twilight zone takes a staggering toll on undocumented immigrants, the panelists said as they described being victimized by everybody from exploitative landlords to families who hire them as domestic help but cheat them on wages and working conditions under threat of reporting them to authorities.

Michelle Bart, whose parents illegally brought her to the United States from Trinidad when she was 5, said she didn’t even know she was an undocumented immigrant until her mother died when she was 16 and family friends told her the story.

She was able to gain temporary immigration status, Michelle said. But without, a series of catastrophic series of unlucky events in her life — homelessness, losing a job, being diagnosed with cancer — would surely have broken her.

Nelson Duarte, a 54-year-old Argentine cook who has been living in this country for 16 years, was on his way to work when Monroe County Sheriff's Deputy David Lariz stopped him on Truman Avenue for blocking an intersection at a light change.

And when she and her boyfriend were victims of a carjacking a few weeks ago, force of habit almost caused her to run when the police arrived, even though she no longer has to worry about deportation. That deeply ingrained fear of police among undocumented immigrants, Michelle said, makes everybody less safe.

“A lot of people in the undocumented community are witnesses to crime,” she said. “When these things happen, you’re going to want a witness, you’re going to want people to speak up.”

The county officials in the audience spoke with enormous sympathy for the immigrants’ plight. “The people who sat up here today awed me with their courage,” Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein said.

“And they moved my heart more than it’s ever been moved before...America needs them.”

But most of the officials also said there’s little they can do, since immigration policy is set by the federal government and most criminal statutes — which often ensnares undocumented immigrants in the legal system, where they’re discovered by federal authorities — are written by the state Legislature, not county commissioners.

“The Legislature does not march to the same drummer as Broward County,” said Ron Gunzburger, general counsel of the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

Follow Glenn Garvin on Twitter: @GlennGarvin