What would you do if your mother, thousands of miles away, was dying and it would jeopardize your immigration status to see her one last time?
It was February 2, 2004, my junior year at college. I’d just stepped out of my linguistics class when my dad phoned to tell me that my mom’s diabetes had worsened. She was in Intensive Care at a hospital in San Antonio, Texas. He told me that I needed to come home. I freaked out. I didn’t have any money for a plane ticket to get home from New Haven, Connecticut. Thankfully, my friends sprang into action. My roommate did my laundry, packed my suitcase, and rushed me to the airport, where I flew home with a ticket bought by my dean that afternoon. My dad picked me up at the airport just hours before mom passed away early the next morning. At least I was able to hold her hand at the end.
In the years since, given my work with immigrant communities, I often find myself reflecting on that frantic day. Even as a broke college student, it was easy for me to drop everything to be with my family when it mattered most.
But for my friend Jeanette Vizguerra, an immigrant rights activist and undocumented mother of three kids who are U.S. citizens, the September 2012 phone call about her mother’s rapidly progressing terminal cancer presented her with a far tougher set of decisions. By the time the call came from Mexico, Jeanette had been battling for three years to stay in the United States. A 2009 traffic stop had landed her in immigration proceedings, and the government had ordered her deportation from the country (the feds prefer the antiseptic word “removal”). Jeanette and her lawyer were fighting the order in the hopes that, while her appeal was pending, the laws might change and allow her to remain in the country she had called home for more than fifteen years.
Jeanette’s first decision was whether to stay in the United States or travel to Mexico City to be with her mother in the final days of her battle with cancer. By leaving, she risked permanent separation from her husband and three young children, ages 9, 7, and 2, and also jeopardized her legal case at the Board of Immigration Appeals. Still, with the possibility of never seeing her mom alive again being too much to bear, she left for her bedside. But by the time she arrived in Mexico City, her mother had already died. Devastated, all Jeanette could do is wonder, “¿Y ahora qué? What now?”
After burying her mother, Jeanette grew depressed in the six months she spent in Mexico City, scrambling to find a job where there were none. Her kids back home in Aurora were struggling emotionally without their mom. Then came the second decision: to risk her life to return to her family. Each year, the bodies of hundreds of migrants who die while attempting to enter the United States are recovered from the U.S. – Mexico border. The journey would be dangerous, but for her family’s sake, Jeanette figured it was a risk she had to take.
Despite what all the anti-immigrant politicians say, the border is more secure than ever. Jeanette was promptly arrested by the Border Patrol on April 20, 2013, near Presidio, Texas, a tiny town in the Big Bend area. But instead of being immediately deported, she was shuttled for the next six weeks through three different holding facilities and immigration detention centers. Her appeal was dismissed. On June 7, in an unusual move by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Jeanette was temporarily released from the El Paso detention center and allowed to reunite with her kids under an ICE detainee supervision program, but rearrested during her first supervisory check-in six weeks later. She was detained at the GEO Detention Center in Aurora, just a few miles away from husband and kids who struggled to make do without her.
Jeanette’s only hope to stay in the U.S. was for ICE to grant her a discretionary stay of removal. Friends and immigrant rights organizations circulated petitions, organized vigils outside the detention center, and met with various members of Congress to urge ICE to grant her stay. Jeanette’s application for a stay of removal was initially denied on Aug. 5, but following waves of phone calls, rallies, and a hunger strike in front of the ICE administrative offices, authorities on Aug. 8 approved her stay and released her from detention.
Sure, decisions have consequences. There are those who will say Jeanette deserves what happened to her. Yet, what purpose is served by not allowing a daughter the ability to see her mom before she dies? What good comes out of locking a mother in an immigration jail at taxpayer expense mere miles away from her kids? And what’s the point of ripping her away from her children’s lives just as her own decision to make a living in the U.S. ripped her from her own mother in Mexico?
Every single day, 1,200 immigrants are removed from this country, and nearly one in four deportees is the parent of least one child who’s a U.S. citizen. Those decisions have consequences, too.
The immigration system in this country is byzantine bordering on ridiculous. The reform package currently being discussed in Congress is at best incomplete and driven by electoral considerations instead of good policy sense. Deportations are at an all-time high, and so are the emotions on all sides of the debate.
This is the backdrop against which I begin “Hustlin’ for Justicia,” my guest-contributor blog for The Colorado Independent. Each Tuesday, I will offer dispatches on immigration, race and culture here at coloradoindependent.com. I welcome your comments and insights. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.