While the Obama administration prepares to deport its two millionth person by the end of April, the story of a deportation doesn't come to an end once someone is removed from the United States — It's often a new chapter for those they leave behind.
Gina Moreno* understood that there was a chance they would come one day. And on an October morning in 2011, she leapt from under her covers as the panicked cries of her mother Miriam rang out from downstairs.
Her stepfather, Gabriel—or “Mr. G” as Gina and her sisters call him—appeared at her door and motioned toward her to see what was going on. The 21-year-old ran downstairs, he followed, and in their doorway stood three hulking men in dark blue jackets. A child, Gina’s half-brother David, stood near his mother. The homework she had been helping him with lay incomplete on a nearby table.
The U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers made their way into the house and moved toward their target, Miriam. Through tears, Gina struggled to find words—anything—to stop them.
“Are you really going to do this in front of my brother?”
The Typical American
In the years since President Barack Obama took office, his administration has set the pace to deport more immigrants than any other administration before it. George W. Bush, for comparison, deported two million in eight years, and Obama is set to match that by April's end. If that doesn’t hit home, perhaps this will: Those two million in six years matches the total amount of deportations between 1892 and 1997.
Obama says the White House can’t suspend deportations since Congress hasn’t agreed on immigration reform; largely because Republicans doubt he’d enforce the laws. During a Google Hangout in January, Obama said he was “modestly optimistic” reform will get done this year before he decides to use his executive power to cut deportations without the blessing of Congress—which many immigration activists are pressing him to do. They’ve even adopted a nickname for him: Deporter-in-Chief.
Right now there are nearly 34,000 immigrants in federal detention awaiting deportation proceedings. Many of the 1,100 who are deported daily are mothers and fathers who committed nonviolent crimes, such as traffic or small drug violations, who may have a chance to stay if reform was passed.
This leaves an increasing number of young adult children left behind to raise families on their own, in search of means to provide food, shelter, and the quality of life they had with their parents. After her mother's arrest, that's exactly what Gina did for David, 5, and her two half-sisters, Jessica, 14, and Vanessa, 21. Just months after graduating college, Gina's life instantly veered off course, a course that until then, she had controlled.
“The deportation system separates people from parents and children all the time. It’s a terrible strain on a family to lose a parent. Usually within our legal system we have a strict policy when it comes to taking kids from parents,” says Nancy Morawetz, Professor of Clinical Law at New York University. “Congress recently changed the legal structure to become very unforgiving.” In cases where a relative isn’t able to step in, children can end up in foster care.
Adult children of immigrants like Gina are shown to be doing considerably better than immigrants themselves when it comes to living above the poverty line, graduating college, and owning a home. Even though they may live in fear of a parent’s deportation, this group of 20 million second-generation children believe they’re the "typical American."
Children Become Parents
An ICE officer followed Gina upstairs as she grabbed clothes for Miriam, who was put in handcuffs just out of David’s view. As their SUV sped off with her mother, Gina took stock: She dropped David off at his school bus stop, raced from College Point, Queens to her job in Manhattan, and called any lawyers and immigration groups she could find. She was told nothing could be done. The hours ticked by with no word about where Miriam was taken, so Gina called various detention centers herself. The family went to bed that night without knowing their mother's whereabouts, and it wasn't until two days later that Gina found her at the Monmouth County Jail in New Jersey, one of about 250 detention centers around the country.
The family traveled with Mr. G almost every weekend for five months to visit Miriam after her arrest. The extra mileage on his work truck meant more repairs, more often, and expenses piled up. Thirty-one-year-old Mr. G, David's father, is a handyman who emigrated to America from Mexico City on a work permit a decade ago. Aside from Jessica's father who has an estranged relationship with him, Mr. G is the only other father figure in their lives: Vanessa's father passed away, and Gina's father lives in Colombia. She's only met him a few times.
During their visits to the jail, the family talked with Miriam through thick Plexiglas as she sat across from them in an orange jumpsuit. “It was disgusting. She was so scared and paranoid that she always talked to me in whispers,” Gina says. They were only allowed a half-hour per visit, but they’d sometimes get more time if Gina played along with the flirting guards. (Some days she was afraid they’d shorten her time if she didn’t flirt back.)
We’ve successfully reunited families, but it’s a heart-wrenching effort. It’s life-changing. These children effectively become parents themselves.
At home, Gina’s mornings began earlier as she washed the dishes, cleaned the kitchen and living room, and made David’s breakfast. With Vanessa away at college in upstate New York, Gina had a hard time fitting into her new role, and it was particularly difficult when it came to her teenage half-sister, Jessica. “There was a completely different dynamic in the house,” she says. “Sometimes Jessica thinks I’m trying to be her mom. At first I was trying to be. We just ended up yelling at each other; it was horrible.”
Aside from the obvious changes after a parent’s deportation, there’s the danger of what can’t immediately be seen. “It can lead to all kinds of emotional struggles [like] depression, anxiety, and a decrease in the quality of life, which Gina seems to be going through,” says Dr. Jill Torres, director and founder of the Center for Immigration Psychology Services in Houston. “It varies from person to person on how they would deal with that, but that’s what we call an acute psychosocial stressor—something that happens quickly over night,” she says. “Even if they’re going through immigration proceedings, it’s still abrupt.”
Consider the weight of the word “abrupt.” For a moment, imagine a parent or sibling being taken from your home right now. Suddenly, your only communication with them is relegated to visits as long as a lunch break—and that’s if you can even afford the trip. Even Gina admits that if it wasn’t for Mr. G, there was “no way in hell” she could take the family to New Jersey. Then, if they’re deported to a rural place (such as those found in South America), communication becomes even more fraught due to a lack of stable access to phones and Internet. Sometimes families move to be with their loved one.
“Families are put at risk because they’re going into countries with unacceptable economies and conditions,” says immigration lawyer Michael Wildes, of Wildes & Weinberg in New York City. “We’ve successfully reunited families, but it’s a heart-wrenching effort. It’s life-changing. These children effectively become parents themselves.”
Miriam stayed in the New Jersey jail until March 2012 when she was transferred to Etowah County Jail in Alabama and flown back to her country of origin, Colombia, more than 2,000 miles away from New York. But for someone who spent more than half of her life in America, she wasn’t ready to give up just yet.
One Land to Another
Miriam legally came to America from Colombia with her aunt while in her teens during the late 1970s. They settled in Queens, New York years after the United States made a major effort to tighten its borders with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The act, symbolically signed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty by President Lyndon B. Johnson, focused on a preference system that took into account immigrants’ skills and familial relationships with U.S. citizens. Visas were capped at 170,000 per year with a quota based on the country of origin.
Shortly after arriving, Miriam married an older Colombian man and had two children, Carolina and Anthony. Miriam described that period of her life as “luxurious,” yet as luxurious as it was, marrying a cocaine dealer would eventually catch up with her. Police raided their home in 1985, and Miriam was caught trying to stash the drugs outside of a window. This led to her first deportation, but because border security was nothing like it is post-9/11, she found a way back to America later that year.
The lesson of our times is sharp and clear in this movement of people from one land to another. Once again, it stamps the mark of failure on a regime when many of its citizens voluntarily choose to leave the land of their birth for a more hopeful home in America. The future holds little hope for any government where the present holds no hope for the people.
-President Lyndon B. Johnson at the signing of the Immigration Bill on October 3, 1965
Before her deportation, Miriam took ESL classes and sold Colombian jewelry and perfumes on the streets. She made decent money, but it wasn't without its problems—she sold things to other undocumented immigrants, and many of them persuaded her to let them pay on credit. Many of her customers had low-paying jobs, which meant that the money was never going to come. Miriam was afraid to take customers to court because of her legal status. When Gina graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh, she thought about starting a small business for her mother. “That was supposed to be a surprise,” she says, “but the surprise never came.”
In 2010, Miriam felt comfortable enough to try to gain legal status. She contacted Roland Gell, an immigration attorney in New York City since the ‘80s, who recommended she apply for asylum. This set in motion the events that led the ICE officers to her door that October morning.
“She lied to me,” Gell remembers. “We asked her if she had any charges against her, and she lied.” By the time 52-year-old Gell became aware of Miriam’s drug offenses, it was too late. “Once she got fingerprinted, her felonies came to light,” he says. “It became clear she was going to be arrested.”
If he had known about her convictions, he wouldn’t have let her apply for legal status—instead, he would have told her to keep “living under the radar” for the rest of her life in America. “She never had a chance to gain legal status,” he continues. “It was a significant drug conviction, an aggravated felony. She didn’t really have a choice.” Under current laws, hers was a mandatory deportation, he says. “I was shocked she didn’t tell me about this. Had she been more forthcoming, quite frankly, she wouldn’t have been deported. The only option for her—” he pauses, exhaling an aching sigh, “was to live in the shadows.”
In 1996, the U.S. passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. These laws changed the penalties for criminal convictions of lawful permanent residents (immigrants authorized to live and work in America). They also heightened border security, among other things, and made many immigrants unable to have their deportations reviewed if they committed an aggravated felony. The laws additionally stated that any lawful permanent resident with multiple crimes would be automatically placed in a detention center after a criminal sentence had been completed. In two years of the laws being passed, deportations drastically increased.
The Obama administration's most significant change to immigration policy came in 2012 when it passed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This program lets DREAMers, undocumented youths who came to the U.S. illegally as children, apply for deportation deferrals and work permits that need to be renewed every two years. Because of strict requirements, not all DREAMers can apply. Even with this, there were 368,644 deportations in the 2013 fiscal year, of that, 133,000 were deported from within the country, and 235,000 were caught at or near the border. The number of people deported at the border is a stat that Bush didn’t count but Obama does, and is a change that contributes to the rapid pace of his deportation numbers. Those caught within 100 miles of the border now have formal deportation charges placed on their record that may lead to their prosecution if they come back. In previous administrations, those caught were bused across the border and released, and not counted in deportation statistics.
Professor Nancy Morawetz says there’s a lot more to be done for the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be in the country. “A lot of people think things have changed,” she says. “Enforcement has just become a greater and greater presence. The problem hasn’t been fixed.”
While an immigrant who’s in deportation proceedings can petition to stay in the U.S. if they have a child, if that child is over 21, they’re considered “independent” and judges rarely stop the deportation.
New York immigration lawyer Matthew Guadagno says the immigration laws currently tend to keep immigrants within our borders because they know if they leave, they won’t be able to come back. “The big problem is that most people don’t qualify for relief. It’s kind of depressing doing immigration law because for a majority of the consultations I do here, there’s nothing I can do for them.”
At first, the lies were easy.
The simplest one, Gina found, was to tell her mother’s friends that she was “busy” or had a new job. When they asked why she hadn’t answered the phone, she’d tell them Miriam had a new number, or that Miriam went to take care of family in another state. These excuses were a way of holding off the truth that her mother was gone—for others, and for herself.
Then things got serious: Gina forged her mother’s name on leftover checks to keep the illusion that the bills were being paid by her. “I don’t know why,” she remembers. “I was afraid. I wanted to keep everything looking as normal as possible. I still had that mindset that she was going to be coming back.”
It worked until September 2012, when the landlord knocked on their door to say that a rent check had bounced. Caught off guard, Gina went upstairs and grabbed another one of her mother’s checks and handed it to him—a small slip-up that triggered his suspicions. That check bounced, and Gina found out the bank had closed Miriam’s account. The eviction notice came a few days later when the landlord decided Gina was committing fraud.
As Superstorm Sandy beat down on NYC at the end of October 2012, the family moved out of their Queens home of 15 years and into the top two floors of a three-story home seven blocks away, owned by a greying man who lived below. The $1,600 rent was split between Gina and Mr. G. In the face of moving during the storm, Gina took all of her mother’s belongings with them. “We brought 30 years of her life into this small place,” she says. “She identifies herself as an American, this is all she knows. I still have hope she’ll come back—whether legally or illegally, I’ll take either at this point.”
She’d soon change her mind.
It’s 6:30 a.m. and the light from the television illuminates the living room. Gina is now 23 and she's watching the news. School buses won’t be in service today, and she needs to leave earlier to get David to school.
On the coffee table are two Martiniello's pizza boxes and a half-empty bottle of Canada Dry left from dinner the night before. Jessica walks into the living room and rummages through her backpack. The television competes with rock music blasting from the white earbuds underneath her black hair and David’s singing in the shower. The sisters don’t say much before Jessica, a student at the American Sign Language Secondary School in Manhattan, runs down the green-carpeted stairs and out of the house to start her hour-long subway commute from Queens. Just before 7 a.m., Mr. G leaves to start his day as a handyman.
Gina pulls herself from under a thin Winnie the Pooh decorated blanket, ties her shoulder-length dark brown hair into a tight ponytail, and makes her way to David’s room to tie his sneakers. Once she’s done, he darts into the living room with the secondhand iPod he got for Christmas courtesy of Vanessa, then he quickly ditches it to race toy cars across the floor.
Gina heads to the kitchen, moistens a sponge and cleans the stained stovetop, then warms a small tin pan filled with milk. She glances at the time—it’s getting late—and in a rush, she hops atop of a stool to reach an assortment of family-sized boxes of kids' cereal. “We don’t have Apple Jacks! What do you want?”
She hands David a bowl of Lucky Charms with warm milk, and he sits in front of the television long enough for her to continue cleaning. She puts on yellow kitchen gloves and quickly scrubs lime-green plates. On the counter in front of her is a small American flag in a vase of water, along with a plastic rose with golden flakes sprinkled across its fake petals.
David doesn't turn from the screen as Gina dresses him in an oversized coat and places his arms through the straps of a backpack. It's more than half his size. They walk to David’s school about eight blocks away, and David doesn’t take his eyes off of her as she leaves toward the bus stop after kissing him goodbye.
It’s just 8 a.m. now, and Gina is still a bus and two trains away from her secretarial job in Manhattan.
While these responsibilities have weaved themselves into Gina’s life during the years after Miriam’s deportation, there’s a new dilemma to worry about: Miriam coming back. “Right now she’s in Panama, making her way up,” she says. Miriam asked that the family save about $13,000 to hire a “coyote,” a guide who shuttles undocumented immigrants across the U.S. border. “She’s doing this without thinking about the money, the time, the risk,” she says. “It’s really upsetting, because she’s older and she can’t be doing this crazy shit. She has to think about the little ones.”
If Miriam does make it back and is caught, she’ll be subjected to federal penalties, and the United States Attorney will likely prosecute her. She'll be attempting to embark on a journey that can prove fatal. Coyotes often abandon migrants in deserted places dangerously far from the border without supplies. Sometimes migrants are raped, held for ransom, or sold into slavery. If migrants cross on foot, they face an expanded border fence and more security agents along strategic stretches of the 2,000-mile long border. This has resulted in something called the “funnel effect,” a rerouting of migrants from “safe” areas that they’re accustomed to crossing, driving them into hot, parched desert areas.
A Pew Research Center report from 2013 says that the number of people trying to illegally enter the country is at an all-time low, with border arrests at a 40-year low. The reason is simple: This increased security makes success for hopeful migrants less likely. In the U.S. Border Patrol’s 2013 fiscal year, they found 445 dead migrants. In the last 10 years, more than 3,500 migrants have died while trying to cross the border.
No Missed Spots
Once a week just before midnight, Gina makes her way to an office building on 14th Street in Manhattan, takes an elevator up a few floors, and enters a small office filled with fabric, scissors and designing equipment. For keeping the place tidy, the owner, a designer, pays her $60 a week.
“Sometimes there are things I can't cover, and I feel so bad,” Gina says, thinking back to when her half-sister Vanessa wasn’t able to register for college classes after the school placed a hold on her account because she owed $1,000. Mr. G was still paying lawyer’s fees, and Vanessa was denied a loan. So Gina combined the extra money from cleaning with an entire paycheck from her secretarial job and handed it to Vanessa with the understanding she wouldn’t have to pay it back.
There are many hardworking immigrants whose presence in America is vital to the success of families who, in turn, have the chance to make a meaningful, positive impact in America.
On this night, as she moves chairs out from under the designer’s table and scrubs their tops, Gina recalls having interned for a councilwoman in Queens, and how she was moved by the councilwoman’s passion to end domestic violence. Gina stops cleaning and describes how this inspired her dreams of running for a council seat one day, of the good she could do—then, she pauses. “I can never be that,” she says. “If they dig deeper, they’ll find out about my mom. People can be spiteful.”
Gina stays hopeful, though, and says she owes that to Miriam. “My mother has always been very positive. She’s very optimistic,” she says. “In times when you tell her this is the last straw, she’d stay optimistic, and we’d all stay optimistic as well.”
Even with her responsibilities, Gina volunteers to teach ESL classes in downtown Manhattan twice a week. She’s also studying for the Law School Admissions Test, with the goal of helping other immigrant families navigate the judicial system. She’s keeping her law school choices limited to home because the less time spent traveling to David’s parent-teacher conferences, the better.
Gina gets back to cleaning. She's incredibly detailed, wiping the undersides of things no one would ever think to look over. She cleans with a sense of desperation, knowing that she—her family—can't afford to have one missed spot knock her out of a job. It's this sacrifice and sense of awareness that she and so many around the country have to take on when they assume the responsibilities of their relatives after deportation.
Passing reform and paving a path toward citizenship for undocumented immigrants would be a victory for the administration, immigration activists, and families across the country. There are undocumented immigrants who should certainly be deported, whether because they're violent or deemed dangerous, but there are many hardworking immigrants whose presence in America is vital to the success of families who, in turn, have the chance to make a meaningful, positive impact in America. The idea of deporting any undocumented immigrant merely because they're in the country illegally has become too simplified a solution for the 11 million already here. Two million deportations is a large number to comprehend, and Miriam is just one piece of it. Yet, the stories behind the statistics are what may cause America's policy makers to get immigration laws caught up with the current reality, so others like Gina can continue reaching their potential.
After throwing out garbage and turning out the lights to head back to Queens, Gina says that the experience of having her mother removed has taught her to appreciate something about herself, something that many second generation children may struggle with as their loved ones are sent to distant places while they're left without them in America.
“I’m identifying myself with the Latino community more than ever. Growing up, I used to say my parents were from Colombia,” she says, “but I never said it with as much pride as I do now.”
Jason Duaine Hahn (@JasonDuaine) is a Complex Staff Writer.
*Names have been changed to protect the family.