WIMAUMA — Attorney Rebecca Hendricks was stunned. Tuesdays are typically busier days than others for the new Gulf Coast Legal Services clinic at the Beth-El Farmworker Ministry campus. But two Tuesdays ago, there were 15 people at a time all day long, their kids in tow playing with toys in the nonprofit agency's small waiting room.
Hendricks was seeing what immigration attorneys across the country have been experiencing in recent weeks as talk of raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has escalated with the Trump administration's latest expansion in deportations — a move that could fast-track the removal of undocumented immigrants before they go to court.
Now, in response to stepped-up local outreach efforts, people are crowding the waiting rooms of legal aid organizations seeking power-of-attorney documents in case they are sent away and need to leave their children and their affairs in the hands of someone here.
"It's cool to see people knowing what to ask for," Hendricks said. The power of attorney document serves as a legal authorization for someone of their choosing to take over.
"Hopefully no one ever has to use it, but it does give them the peace of mind," Hendricks said. "Then the kids don't have to go into the dependency system."
The preparation is a good idea for anyone, whatever their status, said Ana Lamb, an organizer with League of United Latin American Citizens in Tampa. A parent seeking to give someone power of attorney for their child must show only proof that the parent has legal custody.
"Where there is fear, the best answer is to have a plan and be prepared," said Ileana Cintron, chief economic empowerment strategist with Enterprising Latinas, a Wimauma-based nonprofit that has been encouraging people to create family protection plans in the event a parent is detained or deported.
The Beth-El Farmworker ministry saw the first surge of clients after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who pledged a crackdown on illegal immigration as a central campaign plank, said the Rev. Kathy Dain, executive director.
Since then, Dain said, the rhetoric and the fear have escalated.
Enterprising Latinas pushes people to seek power of attorney documents by asking the question parents don't want to hear, said program manager Javier Izaguirre: "What happens if you get pulled over and your kids are at school?"
Enterprising Latinas began doing outreach in April and now is working with about 15 families with hopes to reaching 50. They help create pocket folders filled with all the documentation families can provide — birth certificates, proof they've lived at a particular address for a period of time, identification from the embassies of their countries of origin.
The groups suggest that families create a circle of trust with an individual or a group of individuals who can be entrusted with copies of the documents.
Part of the process, Izaguirre said, is working with attorneys willing to help with the power of attorney document. He also encourages families to seek out these services from people they can trust or from established organizations.
Gulf Coast Legal Services, funded by grants and other sources, does the work for free. But others who are out for money are preying upon the fears of immigrants, he said.
When Gulf Coast Legal Services moved into Wimauma in January, the group began advertising its services at food pantries. Since then, it has seen more than 200 clients, helping them with legal matters such as reporting crimes as well as obtaining power of attorney documents.
"There's no amount of legal advice we can give that can remove that fear," said agency attorney Malvina Tashi. "But if they can feel a tad bit safer about their kids than before they walked in the door, then there's nothing more rewarding."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified program manager Javier Izaguirre with Enterprising Latinas.
Contact Divya Kumar at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @divyadivyadivya.