A 27-year-old Guatemalan has nightmares recalling the sound of immigration agents knocking on her door. A 40-year-old cancer survivor from El Salvador fears driving to the doctor.

Unmarked vans parked near schools make parents skittish.

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A state of unease approaching panic has set in for Central Americans living in the country illegally after the Obama administration announced this month it is targeting recent border crossers under a stepped-up enforcement effort. Officials cited the need to respond to an uptick in the number of immigrants apprehended crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

As fears of raids pulse through the Hispanic community in Maryland and elsewhere, pro-immigration groups and elected officials have raised questions about the effort. In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security obtained by The Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake last week implored federal agents to avoid schools — as is their policy — as well as churches and grocery stores.

"My kids are crying because they don't want me to leave for work," Glenda, a 27-year-old woman who arrived from Guatemala in 2004, said through an interpreter. "People are really afraid. They're locked in their homes."

Glenda, like others interviewed for this article, asked to be identified by only her first name because she is in the country illegally and fears deportation.

Central Americans are fleeing countries ravaged by gang violence and political unrest as a broader national discussion has emerged over the United States' role as a haven for immigrants as well as refugees from Syria and other unstable regions. Those debates, which have figured in the presidential campaign, are laced with arguments about security and economic prosperity.

Federal officials are targeting for deportation parents — most of whom are women — and children who arrived after May 2014 and the last surge of immigrants crossing illegally. The Department of Homeland Security says it is focusing on those who have been ordered to leave the country by an immigration court and have exhausted any appeal for asylum.

Immigration advocates believe the administration is trying to ward off newcomers from making the journey north by signaling that they, too, will be targeted for removal.

While immigrant rights groups in Maryland say they have not been able to confirm raids aimed at the population singled out by Homeland Security, they say they have received an "overwhelming" number of reports of other enforcement actions, such as agents knocking on doors in apartment complexes in the early-morning hours in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods.

Officials with one group, Maryland-based CASA, said they believe seven or eight people in the state have been taken into custody in recent days, though they do not fit the profile of the target population.

Maryland is home to 3,660 "priority immigration" cases involving women and children, a designation created after the 2014 surge of unaccompanied minors to move their cases through immigration courts more quickly. The state ranks fourth in the nation for those cases behind Texas, California and Florida, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

More than 4,700 people in Maryland have received deportation orders since October 2013, the TRAC data show.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement took 121 people into custody last weekend, mostly from Georgia, Texas and North Carolina. Homeland Security, which oversees the agency, did not respond to questions about enforcement activity in Maryland.

Recent border crossers have long been a priority for enforcement.

"This should come as no surprise," Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said in a statement last week. "I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed."

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But targeting that population is not consistent with the rhetoric that has come from the White House.

President Barack Obama received wide praise from Hispanic groups and sharp criticism from Republicans for advancing executive actions in late 2014 intended to defer deportation for millions of immigrants. That effort has been stalled in federal courts.

And Obama has repeatedly said the administration's priority for deportation is "felons, not families" and "criminals, not children."

Yet families and children, regardless of criminal background, are precisely the target, according to Homeland Security.

White House officials have said they are trying to maintain security at the border. The enforcement strategies and actions also are consistent with the need to follow due process, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday.

"We're of course aware of these concerns," he said. "But the enforcement strategy and priorities that the administration has articulated are not going to change."

The latest operations are taking place during a presidential election that has presented Americans with sharply different visions on immigration from the Democratic and Republican candidates.

The Democratic candidates, including front-runner Hillary Clinton, have raised concerns about the raids. Donald Trump, leading in polls among Republicans, has taken credit for pressing the Obama administration to approve the effort.

Glenda, who works as a house cleaner, said she and two co-workers cowered in a Pikesville apartment on Wednesday after an immigration agent spotted her cleaning a window. The three women locked the doors and hid in an upstairs room for two hours, they said, as three agents knocked on the doors and yelled at them to come out.

Sobbing as she recounted her story, Glenda said the women saw an Immigration and Customs Enforcement logo on the clothing of one of the agents. The women, while still in the apartment, called an attorney, and eventually left in a car sent by the lawyer.

"I had nightmares last night with that sound — the knocking," said Glenda, who lives in Montgomery County.

Only one of the women in the apartment recently arrived in the country illegally.

"There's no question that there's been an increase in activity," said George Escobar, senior director of human services at CASA.

Fear in the community has caught the attention of local elected officials, including Rawlings-Blake. The mayor has become a champion of immigrant issues, vowing to increase the city's population in part with new immigrant families, and signing an executive order in 2012 that prohibits city employees, including police, from asking about immigration status.

In a letter to Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary, Rawlings-Blake said she has "great concerns about the rumors that are swirling around many of our neighborhoods." The mayor requested that the department "consider making a commitment" to avoid raids at schools, bus stops, churches, grocery stores and similar areas.

The agency does avoid many of those areas, including schools, as a matter of policy. But advocates say it's not clear whether that policy applies to situations like after-care or sports activities taking place in a school building.

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"I urge you to remember that many of the families who have recently moved to our city are fleeing some of the most violent countries in the Western Hemisphere," Rawlings-Blake wrote. "The conditions of these countries merit a compassionate and appropriate response."

The timing of the new enforcement coincides with a recent spike at the border in Central Americans fleeing violence, perpetrated largely by gangs exported from U.S. cities. Agents apprehended 10,600 unaccompanied children at the Southwest border in October and November, more than double the number over the same period in 2014.

"It's so transparently about that," said Sirine Shebaya, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland who has specialized in immigration. "What could it possibly be about other than the fact that there was a recent surge of children fleeing violence at the border again?"

Advocates for stronger immigration enforcement counter that the recent measures are paltry compared to the number of immigrants in the country illegally, estimated at roughly 11 million people. They argue that detaining 121 immigrants is little more than a public relations move.

"This is more about sending a message to the public and to Congress that they are trying to do something, but it's a pretty feeble message," said Jessica M. Vaughan of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. "This administration likes to make immigration enforcement look harsh, and they like it to be expensive, so they can rationalize why they are not doing more of it."

For now, immigrants who may be targeted are taking it seriously.

Hundreds of families filled St. Patrick's Church in Highlandtown on Wednesday for a "Know Your Rights" meeting held by legal experts and immigration advocates, including the ACLU. They heard from Baltimore City police officers who told them they should not stop reporting crimes; police have raised concerns that fear of deportation has kept witnesses from coming forward.

Lawyers told attendees that immigration agents will not enter schools, churches or hospitals, and told families they should not fear sending children to school.

Despite those reassurances, Catarina, a 32-year-old Mexican with two children said she rarely left her house in recent days.

"I am very spooked," she said. "My daughter is saying, 'Why are they coming for us?'"

"Because we are not from here," she told her daughter.

For Manuel, a 40-year-old from El Salvador who arrived in the U.S. in 2006, deportation is a fear that hangs over his life at all times.

In 2011, he was diagnosed with a rare form of colorectal cancer that was successfully treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Though his health has improved, he said he continues to endure complications from the treatment, which involved surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

"If I return to El Salvador," he said, "I am going to die."

Manuel lives in East Baltimore and drives to work in Owings Mills. While he knows Immigration and Customs Enforcement is concentrating on those who arrived recently, he said he and the undocumented people with whom he lives and works fear that they will be swept up in a raid. He said he recently called a friend in El Salvador who was planning to try to cross the border.

"I called him and said, 'Don't come,'" Manuel said. "Things are really hard right now."

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