The families could reel off all the times they had called the media and written to Washington, but after all that trying, they had never heard anyone who mattered say anything like it: Most Mexican immigrants, Donald J. Trump declared in his first campaign speech, were “rapists” who were “bringing drugs, bringing crime” across the border.
Now he had come to meet them, the families of people killed by undocumented immigrants, and they wanted to tell him he was right.
One son had been struck by a truck, another shot just around the corner from home. Different causes of death, but the driver, the gunman, all the perpetrators were the same, the parents said: people who never should have been in the country in the first place.
Sitting alone with them at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in July 2015, the candidate distributed hugs as the families wept. When the campaign had called, most of them had been told only that they were going to meet with Mr. Trump. But then the group was ushered into the next room, where the campaign had invited reporters to a news conference.
It was a surprise, but no one seemed to mind. Several stepped up to endorse Mr. Trump.
“He’s speaking for the dead,” said Jamiel Shaw Sr., whose teenage son was shot to death by a gang member in Los Angeles in 2008. “He’s speaking for my son.”
Mr. Shaw wanted the news media to know that Mr. Trump could have gone further when he called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals.
“I would have said they were murderers,” he said.
Hailed for bravery, accused of racism, scorned as puppets, these are some of Mr. Trump’s most potent surrogates, the people whose private anguish has formed the emotional cornerstone of his crusade against illegal immigration and clouded the futures of America’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants.
Their alliance came down to this: To parents parched for understanding, Mr. Trump was a gulp of hope. The Trump campaign flew them to speak at rallies and at the Republican National Convention, put them up in Trump hotels and kept in touch with regular phone calls and messages. After his victory, Mr. Trump invited at least one to the Inaugural Ball and seated three more with the first lady during his first address to Congress.
Then and since, they have defended him on social media and in the press, assuring the world that, with President Trump in office, their children will not have died in vain.
This week, the House of Representatives plans to vote on a bill that would intensify penalties for immigrants who re-enter the United States after being deported. The bill is named for a woman fatally shot by a man who illegally crossed the border at least five times.
Sabine Durden, the mother of another victim, recalls dropping to her knees and sobbing when she first heard Mr. Trump warn of the dangers of illegal immigration. Then his campaign called.
“It was almost an out-of-body experience after being so deeply hurt and nobody listening and nobody wanting to talk to you about this,” she said. “It’s almost like I put on a little Superwoman cape because I knew I was fighting a worthwhile fight.”
In Washington in April, they sat in the front rows as Mr. Trump’s homeland security secretary unveiled an office for victims of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants: of the many promises the new president had made in their names, one of the first kept.
To Mr. Trump’s critics, the office and the people it was supposed to represent were little more than pawns in his crude attempts to make monsters out of a largely law-abiding population — one that research has shown to comit crimes at a lower rate than native born Americans. But here before the cameras, the secretary, John F. Kelly, was putting his hand over his heart and thanking families.
“To say the least, my heart goes out to you,” Mr. Kelly told them.That night, they celebrated what felt like their achievement over dinner and drinks at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was expensive, they admitted, but it felt right.It was strange that one of the sweetest moments of their lives was about reliving the single bitterest. But there had been a lot of that over the past year or two, as they searched for a way to make it all mean something: the startled and painful pride of finding themselves booked on national television and welcomed to the White House to talk about the blight of illegal immigration, all because of their sons and daughters, who were gone.An Overnight AwakeningThe local news reportssaid Dominic Durden’s motorcycle was hit by a pickup truck as he rode down Pigeon Pass Road in Moreno Valley, Calif., on his way to his job as a 911 dispatcher. He was 30.They identified the other driver as Juan Zacarias Tzun, who was charged with vehicular manslaughter. It was July 12, 2012.Sabine Durden had last seen her son at the airport the day before, when he dropped her off for a trip to Atlanta. Across the country, she said, she nearly blacked out at the moment of his death. Later, after her phone lit up with messages from his friends, she was sure she knew why.
Not until later, she said, did she find out from some of her son’s friends in law enforcement that Mr. Tzun had come to the country illegally from Guatemala, and that he had been convicted twice of driving under the influence. He had been released on bail several weeks before the collision.
At his sentencing in 2013, Mr. Tzun blamed God for the crash. Ms. Durden blamed the immigration system.
“If it was an accident, I could deal with it, but this wasn’t an accident, because if that guy wasn’t in the country at 5:45 on July 12, 2012, my son would still be alive,” she said. (Mr. Tzun was deported in 2014.)
But nobody overseeing her son’s case seemed willing to view his death that way, she said. “You feel like you got the runaround,” she said.
Ms. Durden, 59, had come to the United States from Germany when she married an American in the Army, eventually becoming a citizen. He was a Democrat, so she was a Democrat. She had never thought much about the immigration debate before Dominic died. Now it was her whole life.
Then came Mr. Trump. Whenever she saw him, he greeted her with a “great big hug,” she recalled. “Dom’s mom,” he called her.
“He would say, ‘You’ll never be alone again. You’ll never have to fight this alone,’” said Ms. Durden, who went on to speak at three of his rallies.
The Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, was out there talking about the need to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. When Ms. Durden heard that, she changed her voter registration to Republican the same day.
In a series of recent interviews, the families described a similar trajectory: The death of a loved one. The spasm of realizing that the other driver, or the gunman, was living in the country illegally. The political awakening — for the Republicans, a hardening toward illegal immigrants; for the Democrats, a quick, grim conversion. The relief, when another “angel mom” or “angel dad” saw them on the news and found them online.
Most of all, the fear that their children would diminish into fading news and Facebook tributes, horror stories circulated in the outer boroughs of the American right — until Mr. Trump thundered into their lives, bearing cameras.
Immigration was “one of those issues that, it didn’t affect me — I was busy working,” said Steve Ronnebeck, 50, whose 21-year-old son, Grant, was shot and killed as he worked overnight at a convenience store in Mesa, Ariz., in January 2015.
“As time went on and the more angry I got, that’s when I got more active,” he said. “This is how I deal with my grief.”
For another parent who came to the Beverly Hills meeting, Don Rosenberg, a self-described lifelong liberal from Westlake Village, Calif., it was hard to embrace Mr. Trump, even if he had the right idea about immigration.
As he watched Mr. Trump announce his presidential bid on TV, “I’m saying to myself, he’s talking about illegal immigration — why did it have to be Trump?” said Mr. Rosenberg, 64, whose 25-year-old son died in a motorcycle accident in 2010. He had been struck by a Honduran man in the country illegally. “To me, an immigration policy isn’t, ‘Build a wall, Mexico will pay for it.’”
Still, by the election, Mr. Rosenberg had come around. He said that he had not voted for either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump, knowing it was not likely to make a difference in California, but that if he had lived in a swing state, he would probably have cast his ballot for Mr. Trump.
Here was the paradox of Donald Trump, the unfiltered tycoon who seemed as far away as Fifth Avenue and as close up as the living-room TV. Even as a legion of critics warned he was pandering to his fans on the way to betraying them, the alliance he had made with the families felt, to many of them, like an unshakable bond.
The thing was, he paid attention. And he never stopped.
After the Beverly Hills meeting, Mr. Shaw received a gift basket containing Mr. Trump’s “The Art of the Deal,” chocolates, and Trump-branded ties and cuff links, according to an account in The Wall Street Journal. At one point, Mr. Shaw flew on Mr. Trump’s private plane. At another, while staying at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas, he cut a campaign commercial.
The other families received regular care from the campaign, too. A Trump adviser, Stephen Miller, would call or text at least once a month, inviting them to speak at rallies or just checking in. Some spoke regularly to Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager at the time, or to Hope Hicks, the campaign’s spokeswoman.
Mr. Miller, an advocate of restricting immigration and now a senior White House adviser, helped draft Mr. Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order directing the government to intensify immigration enforcement.
A few of the parents also regularly texted with Keith Schiller, Mr. Trump’s longtime bodyguard and current Oval Office aide. It was Mr. Schiller whom the president sent to hand-deliver a letter to James B. Comey informing him he was no longer director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
To find some of the families, Mr. Trump’s team had help from the Remembrance Project, a nonprofit founded in 2009 to draw attention to the victims of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants. It caught the Trump wave early, bringing several families to the Beverly Hills meeting and other campaign events and hosting a fund-raiser for Mr. Trump in Houston last fall.
As the campaign offered a national audience to more of the parents, however, many of the Remembrance Project’s members abandoned the group, chafing at what several said were its founder’s attempts to dictate what they said and even what they wore. Mr. Trump, they said, had allowed them their own voice.
Before going onstage at some events, Mr. Trump would shoo aides away for a private moment with the families.
“To me, I find it much more personal when the president comes up to you and says, ‘Steve, how are you doing?’” Mr. Ronnebeck said. “He knows my name. He doesn’t just, you know, speak the whole time. He listens.”
For the Trump campaign, the private cultivation paid off. In public, the families became some of the campaign’s most compelling witnesses.
They could be picked out by what they carried, the talismans of absence: the T-shirts printed with photographs of the smiling dead. The commemorative buttons. The ashes held close in a locket.
At one rally in Phoenix in August, a hush muted the crowd when Mr. Ronnebeck and other family members approached the microphone, one by one, to speak about a lost son or daughter.
“I truly believe that Mr. Trump is going to change things,” Mr. Ronnebeck said, his voice catching.
At the Republican National Convention, Mr. Shaw, Ms. Durden and another parent took turns speaking about their children. Mr. Trump’s acceptance speech was partly devoted to the story of Sarah Root, 21, who was killed in Nebraska the day after graduating from college by a Honduran immigrant who was driving drunk.
“I’ve met Sarah’s beautiful family,” the nominee said. “But to this administration, their amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting.”
He also mentioned the case that, at least on the right, had come to define the dangers of illegal immigration: that of Kathryn Steinle, a 32-year-old woman shot to death on a San Francisco pier in 2015. The suspect was an ex-felon from Mexico who had been deported five times. A few months before Ms. Steinle’s death, the local authorities had released him from jail without notifying federal immigration agents.
“My opponent wants sanctuary cities,” Mr. Trump said, referring to local governments, including San Francisco, that limit their cooperation with immigration officials. “But where was the sanctuary for Kate Steinle?”
The president has since vowed to starve such cities of federal funding, but a judge has temporarily blocked his administration from doing so. The House is scheduled to vote this week on a bill, known as Kate’s Law, that would stiffen penalties for immigrants caught illegally re-entering the country after being deported.
For all the heat the Steinle case generated, however, her family kept a distance from the campaign, occasionally breaking their silence to voice discomfort with the way her death had become a political grenade. (Through their lawyer, they declined to comment.)
“For Donald Trump, we were just what he needed — beautiful girl, San Francisco, illegal immigrant, arrested a million times, a violent crime and yada, yada, yada,” Liz Sullivan, Ms. Steinle’s mother, told The San Francisco Chronicle in September 2015.
‘We’ve Chosen to Speak.’
Politics makes public playthings of private lives. As their losses came to eclipse everything else about them, the families became, in Mr. Trump’s telling, living testimonials to all that was broken about the immigration system.
Still, those who appeared on the campaign’s behalf said they had never felt like props. Mr. Trump was no more using them, they said, than Mrs. Clinton was using hardworking Hispanic families to humanize the issue.
“He’s never once asked us to speak,” said Michelle Root, 48, Sarah Root’s mother. “We’ve chosen to speak.”
It looked very different to the other side, of course. People on social media, and even some friends, did not hesitate to let them know that they thought they were being used. Lots of people called them racist. They insisted that they were not, emphasizing that they did not think all undocumented immigrants were bad.
A large body of research, accumulated over many years, has found that immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes or to be imprisoned than native-born citizens.
For the families, such studies were beside the point. To them, illegal immigration was an epidemic of preventable deaths.
The glare of other people’s judgment did get to them sometimes. Mr. Ronnebeck took a break from social media for six weeks, as the anniversary of Grant’s death passed, then the inauguration, then Grant’s birthday.
“There’s people that think I’m a racist and there’s people out there that think I’m the devil,” he said. “It gets to a point where you just can’t do the negative anymore.”
Not for long, though. With Mr. Trump in the White House, they could take their message straight to the corridors of power. Some hope the president will revoke Obama-era protections for young undocumented immigrants; others pray to see the wall built.
“I think we could email or text or even pick up the phone, for some of them, and call them and have them pass it on,” Ms. Root said of her contacts in the White House. “And he would listen. He might not agree, and might not do it, but I know our voice would be heard.”