CHICAGO — Evergreen Park police officers pulled over Cecilia Garcia’s husband, Hugo Velasco, for an expired license plate in 2012. One asked if he was in the country legally, and he answered honestly. He wasn’t.
Later that night, Velasco called home from the police station. The police had contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement; he was being deported for the second time.
Because it was his second deportation, Velasco was barred from legally re-entering the United States for 10 years. Soon, he was back in Mexico. Garcia, a U.S. citizen, was left to raise their five children by herself. She says that, overnight, she had to be both “a mom and dad without my choice.”
Velasco is one of more than 5 million immigrants the U.S. government deported between 2002 and 2020, another casualty of a system that tears families apart and leaves deportees with difficult odds of returning. The Biden administration has signaled a willingness to review the cases of thousands of immigrants it believes were unjustly deported during the Trump years, but as immigrant rights activists are eager to point out (and as people like Garcia have experienced), family separation is bigger than any one administration.
“There’s a silent, invisible group of people who desperately need relief, and who aren’t explicitly mentioned in [conversations about immigration reform],” says César Miguel R. Vega Magallón, Mexico advocacy fellow at the Rhizome Center for Migrants, a binational nonprofit that provides legal services for deported immigrants. Vega Magallón wants reforms to include deportees, as well as the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
Drawing inspiration from movements for displaced peoples in Palestine and elsewhere, the Rhizome Center has spearheaded a #Right2Return campaign. It broadens immigrant rights advocacy to include those separated from their families and forcibly expelled from the country. Other campaigns, such as Bring Them Home, have focused on individual Dreamers who were deported during the Obama administration; #Right2Return asserts that family reunification and returning home are basic human rights.
Garcia, in addition to working multiple jobs to compensate for the family’s lost second income, co-founded Family Reunification Not Deportation in 2015. The human rights organization provides support to immigrants and, along with groups like Al Otro Lado (“To the Other Side”), has joined Rhizome in calling for the right to return for people unjustly deported.
On January 28, Rhizome published an open letter (co-signed by Family Reunification, Al Otro Lado and 69 other groups across the United States, Mexico and Germany) calling on the Biden administration to adopt a series of policies that would grant the right to return. These policies include waivers on automatic bans (like Velasco received) and discretionary relief for those who have been “criminalized, have had contact with the criminal legal system, or have criminal records.”
Rhizome has also held a series of live chats with groups such as Human Rights Watch and Deportados Unidos en la Lucha (“Deportees United in Struggle”), among other groups, to examine the consequences of mass deportation and the importance of providing deported immigrants a path to return. For now, the campaign is focused on getting immigrant rights organizations to treat deportees as more than an afterthought.
“When someone gets deported, that person is not the only one affected; an entire community is being affected,” says Maggie Loredo, co-director of Otros Dreams en Acción (“Other Dreams in Action”), a deportee-led nonprofit based in Mexico City and one of the signatories on Rhizome’s open letter. As part of a coalition of advocacy groups, Otros Dreams has helped lead the Leave No One Behind Mural Project, which pushes for family reunification and new pathways to citizenship for deported veterans.
In early July, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced a new initiative to review the cases of deported veterans and their immediate families. According to a press statement, immigration agencies will create “a rigorous, systematic approach to review the cases of individuals whose removals failed to live up to our highest values.” Advocates estimate the initiative could provide hundreds, or potentially thousands, of deported veterans a chance to come home, but it remains unclear whether President Joe Biden is willing to reckon with the millions of other deportations that were executed when he was vice president during the Obama years.
Until a right of return is codified into law, the deported and their families will continue to bear the burden of punitive U.S. immigration policies. “We have these systems that are just meant to break us, break families apart, break communities apart,” says Pricila Rivas, program coordinator for Al Otro Lado’s Bin-National Family Unity Program who happens to be a deportee herself. “Something needs to change.”
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Paco Alvarez is a writer based in Chicago.