Gary Fong/Genesis Photos
ANGEL: "We made the decision because of the kids."

Life in the shadows

Immigration | A surge in deportations is splitting apart the families of many illegal immigrants

Issue: "Believing in Iraq," May 17, 2014

Sixteen-year-old Ashley knew something wasn’t right as soon as she and her mother, Maria, walked out of their home on the morning of Dec. 1, 2011. They slipped into the car and noted the presence of two strange vehicles parked on their quiet street. A few minutes later, Ashley noted another strange vehicle parked on the curb at her Sacramento-area high school as she told her mom goodbye.

That was the last time Ashley saw her mother in the United States.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in an unmarked car followed Maria, then 40, down the street and arrested her on unknown charges. Agents bound Maria’s hands, feet, and waist in chains for processing, and when she asked for a lawyer, an agent said, “You don’t need a lawyer. You need to go back to Mexico.” Within hours, she was en route to Tijuana on a bus with three other women and dozens of men, who harassed her during the overnight trip. She had no coat or blanket to protect against the cold night air—made worse since the bus windows stayed down for the trek south. Maria also wasn’t allowed off the bus or allowed toilet paper when her menstrual cycle started.

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Maria’s story is one of millions. Former President George W. Bush presided over a record 2.01 million deportations in eight years, and President Barack Obama will eclipse that mark this year—his fifth in office. The Obama administration insists it is focused on deporting criminals, but many immigrants, including Maria, had no prior run-ins with the law when they were forced to leave and many have spouses and children who are U.S. citizens. The result is too many single-parent homes producing at-risk young adults. They may be more likely to engage in criminal activity, become pregnant outside of marriage, and become locked in a cycle of government dependency.

“They’re not picking up mom and dad and three kids and putting them in a van and graciously escorting them back to their country of origin—that’s not what’s happening,” said Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “Families are being separated. It’s wrong.”

Maria and her husband Angel (WORLD agreed not to use their real names) came to the United States as newlyweds on a travel visa in 1989 and decided to stay. Life was hard: Angel’s first job packing concrete required him to walk two hours each way to work a shift from 1 a.m. to 10 a.m. The couple had two children, both U.S. citizens, and became active in an evangelical church after converting from Catholicism.

Angel and Maria applied for and received work permits in 1997 and renewed them annually for nine years, paying more than $5,000 each time for legal help and application fees. But in October 2006, when they had steady jobs and owned two houses, everything changed: They received an unexpected letter ordering them to voluntarily vacate the United States within 60 days or face deportation. Angel said he and Maria discussed the situation and decided they couldn’t take Alex, then 16, and Ashley, then 11, away from the only country they had ever known. “We made the decision because of the kids,” he told me. “It’s their future I’m worried about.”

When Alex turned 21 in October 2011, he petitioned for his parents’ residency. The family isn’t sure whether that’s what drew attention to them, but Maria was deported six weeks later. Angel is still in the United States and hasn’t seen his wife since she left to take their daughter to school in 2011.

VIRTUALLY NO ONE DEFENDS the current immigration system, which too often contradicts itself, keeps out those it should let in, lets in those it should keep out, and punishes those who follow the rules. But in lieu of a political miracle, comprehensive immigration reform will not happen this year, and maybe not until after the 2016 election, causing immigrant advocates to turn their attention to record-setting deportation numbers. President Obama in March ordered Jeh Johnson, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, to conduct a review of the administration’s deportation policy. The results are expected in the coming weeks. 

Samuel Rodriguez said he’s personally pleaded with Obama to slow deportations—most of which he’s convinced target “good, hard-working, God-fearing individuals”—and the president maintains he can’t undermine the rule of law. Yet the recent outcry may give him political cover to take executive action. After discussing immigration during an April visit to the Oval Office, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, believes Obama may think he can take action on his own, Moore told me, but most people “would prefer the president work with Republicans to fix the system.”


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