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NYT Magazine: Families Show What Deportation Looks Like

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“I just need to raise them” says Melvin Villanueva

“Although you’re young / someday you will understand / why I wasn’t there / on your special day” sings Oscar Villanueva from Honduras to his six year-old son in United States

This Sunday, the New York Times magazine will run a piece by Luke Mogelson that pulls back the curtain on deportation, revealing the heartbreak and lack of choices that families face.

When Republicans argue for more deportations, they try to reduce the debate to numbers and stereotypes.  Mogelson’s piece, entitled “The Deported” online and “Purgatory” in the print edition, puts the lie to this version of the immigration debate.  This is not about numbers, it’s about people: men, women, and children.  Legal residents, undocumented immigrants, and American citizens.  Real people with real histories, real hopes, and real dreams.

This is what deportation looks like.

Following are key excerpts from the article; the entire piece can be read here. The stories told in Mogelson’s piece are sadly, not unique.  See Eli Saslow’s 2014 Washington Post series, “Almost Americans” and “Dream Deferred” for another in-depth look at families affected by deportation.

For more information on this tragedy unfolding every day, visit the America’s Voice Education Fund’s web site on family reunification, www.reunite.us.

Deportation Reality #1: Driving with a broken taillight is often a “deportable” offense.

“Melvin Villanueva was almost home one night last June when a policeman stopped him for a broken taillight. From his truck, he could see his longtime girlfriend, Suelen Bueno, waiting for him behind the glass door of their apartment. She often did that when he worked late. Villanueva supervised a small team of Hondurans — like him, undocumented migrants — who did finish carpentry on construction projects throughout Kansas City. It was normal for them to put in 12-to-14-hour days. During his 15 years in the United States, he had never been pulled over. Still, Bueno worried. The threat of deportation did not subside with time. You just had more to lose.”

Deportation Reality #2: Immigration detention is supposed to be “civil” in nature; in reality, it’s jail.  Your life will change completely.  

“Before Bueno reached them, the officer had arrested Villanueva. After being transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he spent the next four months circuiting a nexus of prisons and detention centers. Mostly, he was in a Mis­souri county jail that held Americans accused of felonies. Fights frequently broke out between the black and Latino inmates. Villanueva kept to himself, rarely leaving his bunk, passing the weeks by reading and drawing. He called Bueno and their children every day. When they met seven years earlier, at an adult-­league soccer game, Bueno already had a young son and daughter; she and Villanueva had since had another one of each together. Villanueva didn’t differentiate. He’d always treated Bueno’s first two children as his own. Now, when the kids asked when he would be back, Villanueva told them, ‘Soon.’

Bueno, who was also undocumented, could not visit Villa­nueva during his incarceration. Instead, she borrowed enough money to hire an immigration lawyer, who filed an asylum claim on Villanueva’s behalf.”

Deportation Reality #3: Often, it doesn’t matter where you came from or what you fled.  

“Honduras is among the poorest and most violent countries in Latin America, and Villanueva’s hometown, San Pedro Sula, has ranked as the city with the highest homicide rate in the world for the last four years. (In 2014, 1,319 of its 769,025 residents were murdered.) Much of the bloodshed is gang-­related. During the 1980s, waves of refugees fled civil conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, many settling in Los Angeles, where street gangs were proliferating. Among Central Americans, two dominant organizations established a vicious rivalry: the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and the 18th Street Gang. When tough-­on-­crime legislation during the 1990s generated mass deportations, thousands of California gang members were sent back to developing countries ill ­equipped to receive them. In feeble, corrupt states like Honduras, the MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang flourished, brokering alli­ances not only with politicians, prison authorities and the police but also with Mexican and South American drug cartels. The narcotics trade fueled the war between the two groups with unprecedented access to weaponry and cash. In San Pedro Sula, as in many other places throughout the region, resources plus impunity equaled more murder, torture and rape.

For Villanueva, whose father was an alcoholic and regularly beat his mother, the violence continued at home…. Members of the 18th Street Gang had begun pressuring him to join their ranks, and on one occasion they had jumped him for refusing.

‘How do you know they were from the 18th Street Gang?’ the asylum officer asked during the interview, after Villanueva described the incident.

‘They had tattoos with the number on their faces and hands,’’ he said, ‘‘and the walls of their houses are marked with the number.’

Villanueva later described the torture and murder of the uncle who directed the youth group at his family’s church. In 2013, the uncle disappeared after complaining to the police about the 18th Street Gang harassing the group members. A few days later, his body turned up in the Chamelecón River covered with puncture wounds, which investigators deemed to have been inflicted by an ice pick….

‘Is there anything else that you’re afraid of in Honduras?’

‘No. Just losing my life.’”

Deportation Reality #4: Your fate is out of your hands and under the control of a civil servant, who makes inexplicable decisions that affect your life.  

“Although the officer found Villanueva credible, she did not consider him eligible for asylum; the immigration judge agreed.  Villanueva was sent to Louisiana, where he was loaded onto a plane with more than a hundred other Hondurans.”

Deportation Reality #5: As you are being deported, you are treated as less than human.  They take away your dignity.  

“They wore manacles on their wrists and ankles, and their hands were shackled to chains around their waists. Armed guards accompanied them. Midway through the flight, bologna sandwiches and cookies were distributed. They were packaged individually, the sandwiches and cookies. Most of the handcuffed men and women found it easiest to tear the plastic with their teeth.”

Deportation Reality #6: You risked your live to get to the United States not because you wanted to, but because you had to.  You built a life there after surviving all the odds, and now you’re losing it all.   

“[Dennis] Abraham first left for the United States when he was 16, with his mother, Maria. For two months, they clung together to the tops of northbound freight trains. Then, while fording a deep section of the Rio Grande, they were separated by a swift current. Maria made it to the other side; Abraham, a weak swimmer, was carried downstream. Uncertain what to do, he turned himself in to the Mexican authorities. Back in Honduras, Abraham had no way to get in touch with Maria and no one to take care of him. He decided to try to find her. He was apprehended and deported from Mexico seven times attempting to make the trip. ‘‘The eighth time, they did this to me,’’ Abraham said, holding out his forearms and showing me a latticework of scar tissue. While on the trains, he had fallen into the hands of the Zetas, one of the largest drug cartels in Mexico and among its most prolific practitioners of abduction and extortion. Disinclined to believe that Abraham had no one to contact for a ransom, his captors tied him up in a dark room, beat him, urinated on him, cut him with machetes, threatened to castrate him and forced him to endure mock executions. In the end, they let him work off his debt, and for eight months, Abraham slept in the streets of their town, cleaning their cars.

This all happened almost a decade ago; since then, Abraham had reached the United States, found his mother, married an American, had two children and been deported.”

Deportation Reality #7: Sometimes everyone is out to get you—bad guys and the law enforcement officers who are supposed to protect you.

“Later that day, in a pulpería across the road from the proc­essing center, I met a man named Bayron Cardona, who was a nervous wreck. He told me that he and his wife, Belky, had managed to cross the Rio Grande but were so intimidated by the Border Patrol presence in Texas that they decided to reverse course and were arrested while trying to get back to Mexico. Cardona and Belky were recent college graduates, still in their 20s, and last year they opened a computer-­repair shop in a building owned by Belky’s father. Their neighborhood was entirely under the control of the MS-13; members of the gang soon confronted Cardona, demanding an impuesto de guerra, or war tax. Impuestos de guerra are a common source of revenue for gangs throughout Honduras, and in Cardona and Belky’s area, every business paid. The amount the gang wanted far exceeded what Cardona could afford. When he failed to produce the money, the MS-13 threatened to kill him. Cardona and Belky went to the United States Embassy, applied for visas and were denied. Then they alerted the police — ‘‘our big error,’’ Cardona told me. That same day, after the couple closed their shop, someone slid a piece of paper under the metal shutter, a printed letter that read in part: ‘‘We know everything you do. We can kill you in your house or when you’re walking out of church. Call home to see what happens.’’ Cardona and Belky called Belky’s father, with whom they were living. Minutes earlier, he told them, two gunmen on motorcycles had driven by, shooting up the front porch with handguns.”

Deportation Reality #8: Going back to your native country often means going back to nothing, or worse.  

“Neither Cardona nor Belky believed that they could safely remain in Honduras. But Belky, who had not left the house since she had arrived more than a week ago, was against returning to America. For her, more than anything, the whole experience had been profoundly humiliating. Before we said goodbye, she described being called into a room in McAllen where officers studied a bank of monitors showing video feed from cameras that surveilled a section of the border. ‘They laugh at us,’ she told me, her face compressed with resentment. ‘One officer was celebrating all the people they’d caught. They watch the people crossing — and they laugh at us.’

I went back to visit Cardona and Belky a couple of weeks later. As we drove though their neighborhood, we passed a group of young men surrounding someone in a crouch. The men were knocking on the top of his head with their knuckles — not violently, but with odd restraint. This was the gang’s way, I later learned, of issuing one of their own a symbolic reprimand, a warning.

Belky told me that she still had not set foot outside the house.”

Deportation Reality #9: Even in the face of violence, the hardest part is still being away from your children.  

“I stopped by a few days later and found Villanueva sitting on a boulder, talking on a cellphone to his younger son. ‘No, my love, you can’t come,’ he was saying. ‘Behave, O.K.? Don’t fight with your sisters, understand?’ When he hung up, Villanueva told me, ‘I don’t know how to explain it to them.’

‘They don’t know?’

He shook his head. ‘They think I’m on a job.’”

Deportation Reality #10: The pull of family reunification is stronger than any other natural or manmade law.  It’s human nature.  Yet our immigration laws choose winners and losers in ways that refuse to recognize our common humanity.  

“A sheet obstructing the entrance to Marta’s shack was pulled back, and a young man with gelled hair and a tight T-shirt stepped out. It was Villanueva’s younger brother, Oscar. After being arrested on a D.U.I. charge, he had recently been deported as well. Back in Colorado, Oscar told me, he had a wife, a daughter and a son. All of them were citizens.

While Villanueva had been surprisingly good-­humored at the airport and remained so that day (sort of grinning at his situation even as he lamented it), Oscar was morose. He spoke so softly that I had to lean in to hear, and when I asked how his kids were holding up without him, he hung his head, sighed, ‘‘Those kids,’’ and wept.

‘I have no choice,’ he said, scrolling through pictures of his children on his phone. ‘I have to take the trains again.’”

Deportation Reality #11: Sometimes it’s so bad when you return, you won’t even recognize where you are.

“One morning when I invited [the Villanueva brothers] to breakfast, we encountered a taped-­off crime scene a few blocks from their house. A body was sprawled face down on the sidewalk, and there was another in the street. You could see solid pieces in the blood around their heads. Forensic experts in white coats placed numbered markers near the bullet casings — 47 of them, so far. The few people who had gathered looked mostly unimpressed. Many passers-­by didn’t bother stopping.

‘It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that,’ Villanueva said.

‘Welcome to Honduras,’ Oscar said.

When I took them home several hours later, we passed the scene again. The crowd had dispersed, and the forensic experts were gone. The bodies, though, remained.

Nobody had covered them. Traffic carried on.”

Deportation Reality #12: Deportation is hard on the parent who is deported, hard on the parent left behind, and hard on the children.     

“Each day’s main event was [Villanueva’s] afternoon phone call to Bueno and the kids. Neither he nor Bueno had told them yet that he’d been deported. Briana, who turned 10 the day before Villanueva was flown back to Honduras, and Jesse, who was 8, were coping with his absence better than their younger siblings. Haley, who was 4 and whose name was tattooed across the back of Villanueva’s hand, had always been the most attached to Villanueva. She used to wait up for him with Bueno whenever he worked late. Now Haley refused to go to sleep, determined to be awake if he returned. Villanueva’s 3-year-old son, Jordi, had grown uncharacteristically introverted and lethargic, sleeping most of the day and rarely speaking.

Bueno, who had remained home with the children after she and Villanueva moved in together, had gone back to work, cleaning an office building seven nights a week while her mother babysat. She returned to the apartment around 2 a.m., woke at 7 to get the kids ready for school, picked up Haley at noon, made lunch for her and Jordi, met Briana and Jesse at the bus stop at 4:30, cooked supper at 6 and left for work again when her mother arrived at 8.”

Deportation Reality #13: You will never stop looking for ways to get back together, opening yourself up to near-constant anxiety and rejection.

“Villanueva was desperate to find out whether there was any possibility of reuniting with them legally. His first few days in Honduras, he seemed optimistic. The immigration attorney Bueno hired to help him with his asylum claim had filed a petition with the Board of Immigration Appeals….

When Villanueva expressed to me his hopefulness about his asylum claim, I was dubious. He had already been deported, after all, and that decision is seldom rescinded. Later, with Villanueva in the room, I called his attorney in Kansas City and asked him myself what he thought was the likelihood that the Board of Immigration Appeals would both consider and grant the appeal. The attorney, Allan Bell, told me: ‘The direct answer to your question is the chances are slim. I did not say slim to none. The chances are slim. I’ll use the word ‘remote.’ I asked what other options there might be for Villanueva to return, and Bell asked to speak in a few days, with Bueno conferencing in.

In fact, there were no options…. Although Villanueva and Bueno — leery of spending more money on a long shot — press [their lawyer] about the likelihood of success, Bell fails to give them a straight answer. (I later spoke with several other immigration attorneys, all of whom held that humanitarian parole — which typically provides a temporary visa valid for family emergencies — was not a viable option for Villanueva.)”

Deportation Reality #14: The trip to the United States is dangerous, and you will see things you can’t forget.  You only pursue it if you have no other option.    

“The last time Villanueva made the trip, he very nearly died. In 2008, after his first deportation — he was arrested at a party where someone else was caught with cocaine — he spent a month riding the trains by himself through Mexico and then waded across the Rio Grande with a group of some 20 other migrants. In the middle of their second day of following a coyote through the Texas desert, a small plane buzzed overhead and the rev of four-­wheelers approached. Everybody scattered. Villanueva found a narrow, dry arroyo and hid beneath a rocky outcrop. Five hours later, he climbed out and started walking. He walked through the night and in the morning fell asleep. Around noon, he was woken by the heat. He had no backpack or supplies. The coyote had told him to keep the sun on his left and the shadows on his right — when it got dark, Villanueva guessed which way was north. Five days after crossing the border, and his third day alone, half-­starved and in dire need of water, he came upon a skeleton. It was small, probably an adolescent. The skull was clean bone. Several of its teeth had fallen out. Nearby lay a blue denim knapsack. Villanueva emptied it. Inside the knapsack was a bag of bread — black with mold — but also a can of beans and a can of peaches. Villanueva used a sharp stone to pierce a small gash in the can of peaches. He downed the sweet syrup and pried the can open and ate the sweet pieces. He chugged the beans.”

Deportation Reality #15: Somehow, somewhere, you will still receive the kindness of strangers.  Not everyone in the United States thinks you are a criminal or worse.  

“A wire fence ran parallel to the shoulder. [Villanueva] found a culvert and crawled through it to the other side. For the rest of the night, he stayed to the chaparral; the next morning, he detected a faint rhythmic pounding and recognized it as a jackhammer. The sound energized him with fresh hope. If there was a jackhammer, there was construction. If there was construction, there were migrants. A little while later, he found a team of Mexicans ripping up a driveway.

The Mexicans lived across the border but had special visas that permitted them to commute for work. They gave Villanueva some of the food they had brought for lunch. One let him borrow a cellphone. Villanueva called his cousin in Kansas, who offered to wire $500 to anyone willing to drive Villanueva to San Antonio. Most of the Mexicans were afraid to jeopardize their visas — but when the team quit for the day, a worker in his early 30s agreed to take him. He took Villanueva in his pickup to a Walmart, where he could retrieve the wired money. Villanueva’s cousin had sent an extra $100 for Villanueva, and after bidding farewell to the Mexican, he bought new socks and underwear, a T-shirt and a pair of pants. He went into the bathroom and washed his face and arms.

When Villanueva walked out of the store, the Mexican was waiting for him. ‘Come on, let me buy you a hamburger,’ he said.

The man took him to a McDonald’s and ordered him a Big Mac. When they finished, he drove him to a motel and paid for two nights.

‘Rest,’ he told Villanueva.”

Deportation Reality #16: The government is increasingly taking an attitude of criminalization toward immigrants, and they are rarely granting second chances.

“Even if Villanueva managed to get through Mexico, he would face the prospect of felony charges, in addition to deportation, if he was arrested on the United States border. Although entering the country without documentation has always been a crime, as recently as a decade ago public attorneys rarely prosecuted migrants in federal court. That has changed. Today, illegal entry and re-­entry are the most-­prosecuted federal offenses in the United States, and the Justice Department receives more cases from ICE than it does from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives combined. Prison sentences for people with multiple illegal entries, like Villanueva, can last more than 10 years.

Say, though, Villanueva made it to Kansas City. He would still spend the rest of his life there in danger. Because of the 20-year time bar from his deportations, he would be ineligible for legal status even after Haley grew old enough to petition for him.”

Deportation Reality #17: At the end of the day, it’s just about the kids.  Simple and true.  

“‘I just need to raise them,’ Villanueva said….

From one envelope, I withdrew a sheet of notebook paper with six verses handwritten in Spanish. It was a song Oscar had composed and sung over the phone to his son on his sixth birthday. The last verse read:

Although you’re young
some day you will understand
why I wasn’t there
on your special day.

‘I don’t know how to explain it to them. … I just keep telling them that he’s traveling for work, he’ll be home soon.’”