Till I.C.E. Do Us Part

Tens of thousands of American families are torn asunder by U.S. immigration policies.

Yana Kunichoff August 25, 2014

The deportation has created a flurry of paperwork and bills for Maria Paz Perez. (Jimmy Binder / Jablab Photo

On Novem­ber 17, 2013, Brígi­do Acos­ta Luís was walked across the U.S.-Mexico bor­der by immi­gra­tion author­i­ties from Brownsville, Texas, to the north­ern Mex­i­can city of Mata­moros. He was dressed in the paja­mas he had been wear­ing the evening that Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) agents arrest­ed him at his home in the Chica­go sub­urb of Schaum­burg, Illli­nois, four weeks earlier.

Nationally, 4.5 million children who are U.S. citizens have one or more parents who are undocumented and therefore vulnerable to deportation.

Depor­ta­tion was an abrupt end to the life 33-year-old Acos­ta had built in the six years since he ille­gal­ly crossed the bor­der to the Unit­ed States in 2007. In Schaum­burg, he had a wife, Maria Paz Perez, a 3‑year-old son, Xavier, and a teenage step­daugh­ter, Isabel, all of them Amer­i­can cit­i­zens. He had also start­ed a small insur­ance busi­ness with Perez. After Acosta’s depor­ta­tion, the dai­ly lives of Perez and her two chil­dren swift­ly began to unravel.

First to change was the family’s dai­ly rou­tine. Perez, who works full-time as a case work­er for the state of Illi­nois, scram­bled to find some­one to pick up her son from school and dri­ve her daugh­ter to cheerleading.

Next to go was the family’s three bed­room apart­ment. Unable to pay rent while also sup­port­ing Acos­ta, pay­ing lawyers and buy­ing plane tick­ets for the fam­i­ly to Mex­i­co, Perez and her chil­dren moved in with her parents.

Last to go was the insur­ance busi­ness. Lack­ing the time to man­age it alone, Perez shut­tered its doors in July.

As the fam­i­ly approach­es the one year anniver­sary of Acosta’s depor­ta­tion, Perez wor­ries they have lost any chance of a mid­dle-class life. It’s become a bur­den on the whole fam­i­ly, includ­ing my elder­ly par­ents,” she says.

Hear Perez tell her sto­ry in this video from immi­gra­tion-reform advo­ca­cy group Amer­i­ca’s Voice:

200,000 deport­ed parents

Some 2 mil­lion peo­ple have been deport­ed under the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion. ICE does not pub­lish data on whether depor­tees have chil­dren in the Unit­ed States, but gov­ern­ment records obtained through a Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act request by the Applied Research Cen­ter (now Race For­ward), a racial jus­tice think tank, show that about 23 per­cent of those deport­ed between July 1, 2010, and Sep­tem­ber 31, 2012 — some 200,000 peo­ple — said they had chil­dren who were Amer­i­can cit­i­zens. Nation­al­ly, 4.5 mil­lion chil­dren who are U.S. cit­i­zens have one or more par­ents who are undoc­u­ment­ed and there­fore vul­ner­a­ble to deportation.

Depor­ta­tion of a par­ent has been linked to greater hous­ing inse­cu­ri­ty, food inse­cu­ri­ty, low­er grades, emo­tion­al dis­tress and, in some cas­es, chil­dren end­ing up in the fos­ter care sys­tem. The effects are social and psy­cho­log­i­cal, but above all eco­nom­ic. Unlike when some­one is laid off or hurt on the job, depor­ta­tion comes with no buffer of unem­ploy­ment pay­ments or worker’s com­pen­sa­tion. The fam­i­ly income plum­mets overnight. Acosta’s depor­ta­tion has cut the Perez family’s earn­ings in half.

Then there are the emo­tion­al effects. César Cuauhté­moc Gar­cía Hernán­dez, a law pro­fes­sor at Cap­i­tal Uni­ver­si­ty and blog­ger at Crim​mi​gra​tion​.com, notes, When a mem­ber of the fam­i­ly has been torn away, that caus­es a huge emo­tion­al impact on every­one, which not sur­pris­ing­ly affects their own abil­i­ty to con­tin­ue work­ing.” For Perez, this was cer­tain­ly true. She used her vaca­tion and sick days to deal with the effects of the depor­ta­tion, and she says that being a sin­gle moth­er has strained every part of her life, includ­ing her job.

Fam­i­lies for Free­dom, a New York-based activist group fight­ing depor­ta­tions, offers a hand­book to help fam­i­lies nav­i­gate the mon­e­tary dif­fi­cul­ties of a depor­ta­tion or a pro­longed immi­gra­tion deten­tion (an indi­vid­ual fight­ing removal can remain in cus­tody for over a year).

The ques­tions in the hand­book depict a life dis­man­tled. For the depor­tee: Who will man­age your bank account? How will you pay your bills? Pro­tect your cred­it? Sup­port your­self dur­ing the tran­si­tion back to your coun­try? Do you have enough pre­scrip­tion med­ica­tion? For the deportee’s fam­i­ly: Who will pick up the chil­dren after school or watch them while the remain­ing par­ent is at work? What about mak­ing rent pay­ments? Did you lose your health­care when a fam­i­ly mem­ber was deport­ed? Have you con­sid­ered coun­sel­ing, and if so, how you could pay for it?

Hav­ing the time to plan for a depor­ta­tion or deten­tion can help soft­en the blow. But increas­ing­ly, depor­ta­tions are fast-tracked,” leav­ing depor­tees lit­tle time to prepare.

In ICE’s Chica­go area of respon­si­bil­i­ty, which includes Illi­nois, Indi­ana, Kansas, Ken­tucky, Mis­souri and Wis­con­sin, 57 per­cent of those deport­ed between 2008 and 2011 — more than 25,000 immi­grants— received fast-track” depor­ta­tions, accord­ing to an analy­sis by the Chica­go Reporter. Nation­al­ly, the Trans­ac­tion­al Records Access Clear­ing­house (TRAC), a data-col­lec­tion project run out of Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty, esti­mates that 1 in 3 deport­ed immi­grants nev­er make it to court, but rather are packed off through an expe­dit­ed removal.”

While depor­ta­tion times vary, expe­dit­ed removals” are the fastest pos­si­ble depor­ta­tion process. This can range from a week to sev­er­al months, some or all of which can be spent behind bars.

In Brígi­do Acosta’s case, only 33 days elapsed from the evening immi­gra­tion offi­cials came to his door to the after­noon he was flown out of the coun­try. A pri­or depor­ta­tion order made him inel­i­gi­ble for a hear­ing in immi­gra­tion court, and he was sent straight to depor­ta­tion proceedings.

Accord­ing to immi­gra­tion author­i­ties, Acos­ta was deport­ed because he reen­tered the coun­try after being deport­ed pre­vi­ous­ly. But Acos­ta tells the sto­ry differently.

Acos­ta says that in 2001, while vis­it­ing rel­a­tives in Schaum­burg on a valid tourist visa, he was charged with mis­de­meanor shoplift­ing. He wasn’t the one steal­ing, he says, but was with one of his cousins when she attempt­ed to shoplift cloth­ing. Acos­ta tells In These Times in a phone call from Guadala­jara that he was bailed out the next day and returned to Mex­i­co the week after, believ­ing that was the end of his trou­bles with U.S. law enforcement.

In Mex­i­co, once they release you, you are done,” he says. But Acos­ta still had a pend­ing court date for the next month, which he didn’t attend, and a war­rant was issued for his arrest. When he tried to reen­ter the coun­try in 2002 on anoth­er tourist visa, he was stopped on sus­pi­cion of migrat­ing to the Unit­ed States for work. Immi­gra­tion offi­cers gave him the choice of wait­ing in fed­er­al prison for six months for attempt­ing to immi­grate, or going home. He took the next flight back, not real­iz­ing that by mak­ing this choice, his record now stat­ed that he had been deport­ed from the Unit­ed States.

Unable to get anoth­er visa, Acos­ta crossed the bor­der ille­gal­ly into the Unit­ed States in 2007 and, a year lat­er, began build­ing a life with Perez in Schaumburg.

In Feb­ru­ary 2013, Acos­ta was in an argu­ment at the car deal­er­ship where he worked, and the police were called. Though he wasn’t charged with any­thing, the mis­de­meanor theft charge reared its head when the offi­cers scanned his ID. Acos­ta retained a lawyer, who coun­seled him to plead guilty.

Acos­ta has come to regret that plea. Only months lat­er, ICE agents arrest­ed him, say­ing that his removal order from his pre­vi­ous 2002 depor­ta­tion had just been rein­stat­ed. Because Acos­ta was deport­ed under a rein­state­ment of removal,” he is barred from enter­ing the coun­try for 10 years.

Reunit­ing families

Fam­i­ly reuni­fi­ca­tion has long been the guid­ing prin­ci­ple of the U.S. immi­gra­tion sys­tem: It cur­rent­ly accounts for two-thirds of per­ma­nent immi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States. Though the process can still take years, it is this metaphor­i­cal line” immi­gra­tion oppo­nents are refer­ring to when they tell immi­grants to get in line.”

But the dam­age depor­ta­tion does to fam­i­lies has been curi­ous­ly absent from immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy dis­cus­sions. For exam­ple, the U.S. Sen­ate Judi­cia­ry Com­mit­tee held a hear­ing on March 18, 2013, called How Com­pre­hen­sive Immi­gra­tion Reform Should Address the Needs of Women and Fam­i­lies.” The hear­ing focused on visa cat­e­gories that help women immi­grate and the health­care needs of immi­grant women. Depor­ta­tion was only glanc­ing­ly ref­er­enced, despite the dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of women left to par­ent alone after their male part­ner is deported.

Mean­while, as the government’s enforce­ment styles have changed over the past sev­en years, the safe­guards in place for fam­i­lies affect­ed by depor­ta­tion have proven woe­ful­ly lacking.

In 2007, the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty began to shift focus from work­site raids to part­ner­ships between ICE and local law enforce­ment, such as 287(g) and the Secure Com­mu­ni­ties pro­gram, launched in 2008. While the work­site raids includ­ed guide­lines for iden­ti­fy­ing and releas­ing pri­ma­ry care­givers and preg­nant or nurs­ing women, the new modes of enforce­ment have no such pro­tec­tions. The shift has been cor­re­lat­ed with a rise in par­ents placed into depor­ta­tion proceedings.

Secure Com­mu­ni­ties also great­ly expand­ed the num­ber of peo­ple ICE could screen for immi­gra­tion vio­la­tions. As a con­se­quence, immi­gra­tion author­i­ties have been increas­ing­ly crit­i­cized for deport­ing peo­ple with minor or no crim­i­nal con­vic­tions. In fis­cal year 2008, more than half of deport­ed immi­grants had not been con­vict­ed of a crime, accord­ing to TRAC.

In response to mount­ing out­rage, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion released guide­lines in 2011 deter­min­ing whom ICE offi­cers would tar­get for depor­ta­tion. The pol­i­cy, known as pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al dis­cre­tion, stip­u­lat­ed cat­e­gories of indi­vid­u­als who were pri­or­i­ties for removal— such as immi­grants with felony crim­i­nal records and immi­grants who have reen­tered the coun­try after a depor­ta­tion— and gave indi­vid­ual agents lat­i­tude in decid­ing whether to ini­ti­ate depor­ta­tion proceedings.

How­ev­er, an analy­sis by TRAC found that only 7 per­cent of cas­es have been closed using pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al dis­cre­tion since the order.

There is a huge dis­crep­an­cy between the rhetoric and the real­i­ty of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion,” says law pro­fes­sor Gar­cía Hernán­dez. The admin­is­tra­tion has said it’s going after only those indi­vid­u­als who pose a dan­ger to the Unit­ed States, but in real­i­ty, it has cast a very wide net that is cap­tur­ing indi­vid­u­als who no one would rea­son­ably claim are a threat to our communities.”

The immi­gra­tion reform bill passed by the Sen­ate in June 2013 has been held up by some as the best hope for a com­pre­hen­sive solu­tion to stop­ping the trau­ma of depor­ta­tions. Wendy Cer­vantes, vice pres­i­dent of immi­gra­tion and child rights pol­i­cy at First Focus, says that by pro­vid­ing a road to cit­i­zen­ship,” com­pre­hen­sive immi­gra­tion reform would pro­vide undoc­u­ment­ed par­ents with pro­tec­tion from depor­ta­tion. If the bill had been law when Acos­ta was picked up last Novem­ber, he would prob­a­bly still be in the coun­try; his fam­i­ly ties and strong con­nec­tion to his com­mu­ni­ty would have put him on the bill’s 13-year path­way to citizenship.

Oth­er immi­grant rights groups, like the Chica­go-based Mora­to­ri­um on Depor­ta­tions and the Nation­al Day Labor­ers Orga­niz­ing Net­work, have crit­i­cized the bill for ramp­ing up bor­der con­trol and expand­ing the groups tar­get­ed for depor­ta­tion to include peo­ple with offens­es like drunk dri­ving. If Acos­ta, for instance, had had two more mis­de­meanors on his record, he would not have been eli­gi­ble for cit­i­zen­ship under the bill.

With the bill seem­ing­ly dead in the House, anoth­er demand has come to cen­ter stage: a mora­to­ri­um on depor­ta­tions. Grass­roots immi­grant groups have long made this their cen­tral demand, but in recent months a new lay­er of fed-up advo­cates has joined the call. These include large, nation­al non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tions such as the Nation­al Coun­cil of La Raza, which lob­bied heav­i­ly for the pas­sage of an immi­gra­tion bill.

Advo­cates are now push­ing for an exec­u­tive order by Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, who promised in late June to do as much as I can, on my own, with­out Con­gress” on immi­gra­tion. The extent of Obama’s pow­er — or his will — to pro­vide depor­ta­tion relief are unclear, but one option would be to give immi­grants already in the coun­try the same path to cit­i­zen­ship that the Sen­ate bill would have. That might come too late for Acos­ta, since the bill’s relief doesn’t apply to those already deport­ed. If the pres­i­dent want­ed to go fur­ther, he could issue a fam­i­ly reuni­fi­ca­tion order, which would allow deport­ed par­ents with­out seri­ous crim­i­nal records, like Acos­ta, to return.

As the days tick by, advo­cates are grow­ing impa­tient. Every day that Oba­ma delays, there are 1,000 peo­ple like Acos­ta deport­ed,” says Lynn Tra­monte, deputy direc­tor at Amer­i­ca’s Voice.

For their part, Acos­ta and Perez have put major deci­sions on hold while Acos­ta fights for recon­sid­er­a­tion of his case through immi­gra­tion appeals courts. If the appeal fails, they will have to decide whether the whole fam­i­ly will move to Mex­i­co or live apart until Acos­ta is able to apply for entry to the Unit­ed States in 10 years. It is hard to imag­ine stay­ing in Schaum­burg, but Perez thinks that her fam­i­ly would have few eco­nom­ic and edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties in Mexico.

The deci­sion haunts Perez and Acos­ta. Last Decem­ber, while the fam­i­ly was vis­it­ing Guadala­jara, a man robbed a jew­el­ry store at gun­point in the local mall they were vis­it­ing, a reminder of Mexico’s esca­lat­ing violence.

Mean­while, in Schaum­burg, Perez says she con­tin­ues to feel the effects of a bro­ken fam­i­ly. My son talks to his father on Skype every day, and when he hangs up, he cries,” she says. We need him back.”

Yana Kuni­choff is a Chica­go-based inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and doc­u­men­tary pro­duc­er. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Pacif­ic Stan­dard and the Chica­go Read­er, among oth­ers. She can be reached at yanaku­ni­choff at gmail​.com.
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