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Where to start…
My husband came back from work, I gave him something to eat, and he showered. And I tell him, ‘I’m going to the park with the kids, do you want to come?’ And he says ‘No, you all go.’ We left, and after twenty minutes he called, and I thought, ‘Oh now he wants to come.’ Well, the voice on the phone says, ‘We are calling because we’re going to take your husband. Bring the keys so you can lock the house.’ And we came running and they were all there and I asked them what was happening, why they were taking him and he said that he couldn’t say, he couldn’t explain, that it was for a lot of things. The kids were crying, and I was like a crazy person, looking for him.
I went around to prisons looking for him. The police asked me what they looked like, the ones who came. I didn’t look closely, they were in all black. When police told me it had been ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], I started to shake, and thought, ‘I have to see a lawyer.’ I was desperate, because I had never thought about this moment.”
Wilson Gomez-Pu was deported at the end of November after a DUI caught the attention of immigration officials. His partner, Josefa Gonzalez, and their two children remain in Chicago. Gonzalez refers to Gomez-Pu as her husband in testimony, but they aren’t legally married. Suffering from depression and diabetes and dealing with mounting debt, Josefa is struggling to raise her children alone. Josefa Gonzalez is one of many left behind in the wake of a family member’s deportation. She and her children share equally in the punishment doled out to their breadwinner.
Families navigating the uneasy path between undocumented and documented immigration status received a glimmer of hope this past fall. On November 20, 2014—the same week that Gomez-Pu was deported to Guatemala—President Obama announced two programs that will be implemented in the coming months. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that was established through executive action in 2012, will be expanded to include a wider range of applicants. Deferred Action for Parent Accountability (DAPA) will soon allow for parents of children born in the United States to acquire deferred action status. Deferred action postpones deportation of an individual for a certain period of time. People who have been granted deferred action are authorized to work in the United States.
Rosi Carrasco, a program director at Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD), is pleased with announcement of the executive orders, but is disappointed by its limitations. “Unfortunately, it excluded people without U.S. citizen children, or those who didn’t have kids. It excluded members of the gay community, people who have worked here for many years.” She remains committed to her organization’s number one priority: stopping deportations through grassroots mobilization and education, rather than political lobbying at the federal level. “For us, the work continues.”
Isabel Anadon, a senior policy analyst at Latino Policy Forum, a research and educational organization that works in multiple areas of advocacy and reform, highlights a widespread concern that the programs are made of paper, liable to crumple and warp at the will of whomever happens to be in political power.
“I think some of the other challenges they’re seeing to this are that it’s just temporary at this point and we’re not sure, in a couple of years when there’s another presidential election, how that individual may or may not make changes to these policies.”
No application has been made available for the expanded DACA or DAPA, and Anadon says that those who think they might be eligible should be wary of figures promising early admission to the program She recommends that hopeful applicants speak to accredited legal services to get a sense of their own case.
The process of acquiring Deferred Action is not a simple one. To qualify for expanded DACA one must have arrived in the U.S. before their sixteenth birthday, continuously lived in the U.S. since January 1, 2010, and graduated from high school, obtained a GED, or be enrolled in school.
The requirements call for information that can be difficult to prove. Applicants must provide proof of identity, proof of continuous residence in the U.S., and proof of student or military status. Undocumented immigrants must offer up documents that prove the date of their arrival and presence in the U.S.—anything from birth certificates to money order receipts to official records from “religious entities.” In addition, they must pay a fee of $465.
Imelda Salazar, a community organizer for the South West Organizing Project (SWOP), takes a cautiously optimistic view. “I think, at least the families that I’ve worked with, they are really willing, saving the money, they want to apply. It’s $465. I wish it was less, but for the relief, it’s priceless. For a mom to be able to sleep because immigration won’t come, I think it’s priceless.” Salazar served as a conduit between Josefa Gonzalez and SWOP and frequently visits the family, bringing supplies and food.
But for many, the decision to apply is a tough calculation. According to the Migration Policy Institute, only fifty-five percent of the young immigrants who met the program’s criteria applied for the DACA program in 2012. A report released by the Institute in August of 2014, “DACA at the Two-Year Mark,” cites the application fee, inability to prove continuous presence in the U.S., and a failure to pursue the necessary education requirements as reasons that forty-five percent of eligible youth chose to forego the DACA process.
As expanded DACA and DAPA have not begun accepting applications, it is unknown if they will be more successful in attracting applicants. The mediocre success of the first stage of DACA indicates a lack of communication between the federal government and the undocumented population. For an undocumented resident, there are risks to jumping onto the government’s radar.
Whereas the U.S. government measures legal status by factors such as location of birth and continuous presence in the country, immigrant rights groups push the idea that immigration and deportation status should be decided on the terms of social integration within a community. Organizations like OCAD use their collective voice to prove that those in danger of deportation are well-loved, active citizens in the South Side community.
Rosi Carrasco of OCAD explains, “What we have learned is that when there’s an organized community, it makes a big difference. What’s most important for us is to understand, clearly, that the authorities always have the ability in each case to use discretion. So with that conviction, one of our strategies is to accentuate and give importance to the contributions of our families.”
OCAD and its allies are able to sway the hard constraints of the current policy by forcing immigration officials to recognize that, in executing and fast-tracking deportations, they are denying reprieve to people who act, work, and live as Americans.
“I think that the community will continue to put on pressure,” Carrasco says, “because in the end, our people have roots in this country—their houses, their jobs—and so they have to keep fighting for their right to live here with dignity and justice.”
Even in relation to the Gomez-Pu case, which she was involved in, Carrasco is confident that officials could have used discretion and been more lenient. The details of the Gomez-Pu case do not point to an obvious solution. Wilson Gomez-Pu came to the United States in 2000, escaping gang violence in Guatemala that claimed the lives of his brother and father. He re-entered the United States without inspection in 2001, and after meeting Josefa Gonzalez, settled down and made a home for himself in Gage Park on the South Side. The couple has two children, Dalila and Wilson Jr.
In 2013, Gomez-Pu was convicted of a DUI, which brought him to the attention of immigration officers. In August of that year, ICE personnel removed him from his home and placed him in detention. After describing his perilous situation in Guatemala, Gomez-Pu was recommended to the Chicago Asylum Office and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. He was found not to have “reasonable fear” of returning to Guatemala after an interview with an asylum officer.
However, after he requested a review of the decision from an immigration judge, it was determined that he did, in fact, have reasonable fear of returning to Guatemala. He then went through a strenuous appeals process that ultimately failed. Gomez-Pu’s account was found to be contradictory and his proof found to be insufficient. In reading through the court decision, one is struck by the gravity placed on the small discrepancies in Gomez-Pu’s testimony. He was denied asylum by an immigration judge and, fourteen months after his initial detainment, he was deported.
Carrasco cites the double standard at play in punishing undocumented immigrants. “Even though it says in the rules that if you have a DUI, you can’t be included, we know that there’s still discretion on the part of the authorities. The problem is that they punish people with deportation. If a citizen makes a mistake, he has the option to take a class, pay his fines. He has the option to correct and mend the damage he has caused, or pay the consequences.”
The double standard applies to Gomez-Pu’s case. “Deportation shouldn’t be a consequence,” Carrasco says, “We want people to correct the errors they have made. In the case of Wilson, he had his kids, his home, his family. He made a mistake, but immigration can always use discretion and they didn’t.”
OCAD and SWOP don’t just help make cases public, circulate petitions, and provide legal assistance. Like many immigrant rights organizations, the local groups also focus on the mental health and wellbeing of those living with the deportation of a loved one.
Salazar talks about the importance of mental health resources in the community. “Mental health is a big part of SWOP, of our immigration team. Because we know how devastating for a family it is, that someone, especially the provider, is gone. So for the mom, it means another life. For the stay-at-home mom, now she needs to find a job, and then the kids are not going to have a two parent home. It’s a totally new life.”
This focus is tied into recognizing the human element in each immigration case. SWOP places a large emphasis on human-to-human connection through testimonials and personal attention in its outreach. Salazar says: “Because we’re human beings, all we want is recognition and to be treated with dignity.”
Even with help from organizations like SWOP, Josefa Gonzalez is finding it hard to raise her children as a single mother.
My son was very attached to his dad. They ask when their dad will come back, they ask a lot, and the truth is that I just don’t know. I don’t know what to say because I don’t want to lie to them. It’s been…it’s been so bad. I work for a cleaning company, but they pay us very little. Fifteen dollars for a house. I don’t lie. This week from Monday to Saturday, I only made 200 dollars. I’ve applied to other places. I’m desperate. I feel desperate because my kids need shoes, clothes. And what will I do? I left my first husband because he hit me too much, in Mexico. Wilson drank. I prefer that he drink but doesn’t hit me. Better that he drinks.
The figure of the illegal immigrant, a two-dimensional description that defines a person by their state status, is complicated when one considers an actual case, an actual person with a past, a family, and an individual experience of migration.
The case of Wilson Gomez-Pu is undeniably messy. On one side, character references from work supervisors, fellow detainees, and detention officers, and the affection of his family. On the other, an undocumented re-entry and a DUI. After fourteen months of legal limbo, the government finalized his deportation.
Was he good enough to stay? That is a question at the center of his, and every, immigration case. It’s a question that, even as laws change, the government will answer with a yes or a no. The problematic idea of measuring worthiness is the core of immigration policy: who deserves to be an American?