"The Americans Left Behind by Deportation By KARLA CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO FEB. 28, 2018
In the fall, I traveled to rural Ohio to meet with the children of a man who had been recently deported to Mexico, even though he was considered a model citizen by his neighbors and had no criminal record beyond driving without a license. I had seen video footage of his three young boys and little girl saying goodbye to him at the airport. They looked like orphaned bear cubs, wandering around aimlessly in the terminal, their faces frozen in fear.
Eric, the oldest at 14, is in the eighth grade and wants the local Wendy’s to make an exception to its minimum age requirement so he can work there. “I’m the man of the house now,” he told me. When their father left, so did the only member of the family who could drive. Eric walks several miles to the grocery store and returns carrying heavy bags of food even in the snow. Their mother, who is also undocumented, is now the family’s sole source of income and works long hours at a factory, so Eric has to come straight home from school to take care of his younger siblings. (He had to scrap plans to try out for the wrestling team.) Edwin, 12, has nightmares about his father and crawls into his mother’s bed almost every night. Classmates taunt him that they hope his mother gets deported, too. Anuar, 10, who calms himself by doing equations in his head, brought me his report card with a perfect 100 in math. Elsiy, 6, has not been eating well since her father’s been gone.
America’s historic uneasiness with interracial marriage and mixed-race children has found a new incarnation in the persecution of families with mixed legal status. There are nearly six million citizen children who live with at least one undocumented parent, and perhaps millions of other Americans who are married to undocumented immigrants. Reports are multiplying of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents picking up immigrants at their green card couple interviews, while their American spouses are left speechless and powerless.
The Trump administration’s aggressive detention and removal of undocumented immigrants is not only inhumane in its treatment of immigrants, but a direct attack on the rights and wellbeing of their American family members. I recently met Jim Chuquirima, a 16-year-old American citizen whose mother is undocumented. He is bespectacled, painfully shy and builds computers out of spare parts that his mother, Nelly Cumbicos, buys him. Ms. Cumbicos is a movie-starbeautiful single mother from Ecuador who had sworn off men before she met Ramón Muñiz, a roofer and die-hard union man who lived on the first floor of the multifamily home in Meriden, Conn., where Jim and Nelly rented the third floor. He would fix Nelly’s car, pick Jim up from school while she was at work and leave unsigned love letters on the windshield of her car. They married in their home last Halloween.
An American citizen, he insisted in 2015 that she let him petition for her green card, even though she was afraid it would put ICE on her trail. She was right: When ICE became aware of Ms. Cumbico’s whereabouts, it located a deportation order from more than a decade before that she says she had never received because it was sent to a wrong address. ICE gave her a temporary stay on Feb. 5 only to inexplicably rescind it four days later. Like a botched execution, it left the family newly traumatized. Their legal fees have nearly bankrupted them. Her deportation is set for Wednesday. “I feel like this is my fault,” Mr. Muñiz said. “I put her in danger, but all I wanted was to protect her. I’m lost without her.”
In the early 1900s, American women who married foreigners lost their citizenship. Those laws are off the books now. But does that mean American citizens have the constitutional right to be protected from the deportation of an immediate family member? Lower courts haven’t thought so. In one case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided the deportation of an American-born infant’s parents didn’t violate her right to grow up in this country because either her parents could surrender her to foster care in America before they left or she could leave with them and return to the United States as an adult. The Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit has declared that a parent’s deportation has only “incidental impact” on a child. Studies, however, have shown that children with parents who are under threat of deportation or have been deported fall into depression and anxiety and are more likely to have behavioral problems and to experience drastically decreased academic performance. Couples who are separated by oceans are very likely to end up divorced.
The Supreme Court has historically declared that it is “intolerable” to force a citizen to choose between two constitutional rights. But what then of the American families of deportees? Isn’t the Trump administration forcing them to make a terrible choice, between either staying in the United States and having their families rived in two, or forfeiting their lives in America so that they can keep their families intact?
I, too, had to worry about this dilemma. I am the child of undocumented immigrants from Ecuador who brought me to this country when I was 5. I am the American dream incarnate, with an Ivy League education and a book deal. Now I am married to an American citizen, but there is no guarantee that my spouse’s status will shield me from deportation. For my own green card interview, I wore the collared pink silk J. Crew dress I wore to our wedding. I dress glamorously and wear a face full of designer makeup in any situation where I might be detained, out of pride and defiance. But this interview was not bait to detain me, the way interviews have been for so many less fortunate immigrants.
“There is nothing I wanted more than to be able to protect you from your nightmares,” my partner told me after we’d read about the tragedy that had befallen other citizen-undocumented couples. “I wasn’t thinking so much about the literal, legal rights that the green card would afford; I was thinking about what do I need to do to keep my family safe, and that meant making sure we could be a family. It was such a low bar.” I got my green card. Our marriage is real. My guilt is as well. It is so hard to imagine that Ramón’s desire to keep Nelly safe provoked the exact opposite result.
Short of comprehensive immigration reform, which seems so unlikely these days, there are ways to end these inhumane deportations. In February 2017, John Kelly, then the secretary of homeland security, issued a memo essentially doing away with enforcement priorities for ICE, which generally called for not targeting undocumented immigrants if they did not have serious criminal records. The Kelly memo made all undocumented immigrants targets — even if they had spotless records, and even if they had spouses or children who were citizens.
A return to Obama-era priorities that focused on criminals and security risks would restore some level of compassion to enforcement in the short term. Though far from the best solution, that would at least protect the rights of citizens. Unless protecting American citizens was never the point of any of this. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is a graduate student in American Studies at Yale.