I was invited to tell my story at a citizenship class full of Latinos who work in the fields and warehouses of the agriculture industry of the Yakima Valley. There was ample opportunity for them to laugh at situations in my life that mirror their experience; falling in love abroad, having life circumstances strand them in a country not their own and finding themselves unexpectedly undocumented, being deported, spending years single-parenting – certainly not the kind of story they expected a white, educated, American woman to be telling. I ended it by quoting the record-breaking swimmer Diana Nyad, “Never, ever, ever give up!”
At the end of the evening, the translator wanted to introduce me to her aunt. She told me her uncle, this woman’s husband, was to be deported on Tuesday and it was a lifetime deportation. I didn’t know how to respond. I had just said to never give up and here this woman was facing raising her children alone in the U.S. while her husband was sent back to a country that her children don’t remember or haven’t even been to.
So what was his deportable crime? Having not used his blinker when he made a right turn. And the reason for lifetime deportability? Years ago, his son was staying here in the U.S. with his father (the boy’s grandfather) when the old man got cancer. Afraid that his father would die leaving his young son alone in this country, and unable to get a visa to cross the border, he chose to cross without authorization. He could have left his child unattended (which I believe, by the laws of the U.S., qualifies as criminal neglect), but instead, did what any loving parent would do in a situation where their child was in danger of abandonment.
I watched a documentary film about another family who came to this country from Peru when their children were small and their youngest was not yet born. The parents were pulled over and as the officer walked up to their car, the father called his eldest child at home, saying, “I’ve been pulled over. Stay on the phone. If your mother and I are to be detained and deported, I want you to hear it directly from me.” The end result was the policeman sending them on their way with a “have a good day!” and they returned home to their children, painfully aware of the precarious position their family was permanently in.
So one officer stops a man and he’s split from his wife and children for life; another lets them go with a polite salutation. As I’ve experienced myself, there is no immigration “system.” It’s an immigration crap shoot, and families, marriages, children’s futures, even life or death, are at stake.
It took my family twelve years to unite in this country and if all goes well, another four years to complete the process which will ensure we’ll never be split by the U.S. government again. What must it take for families who aren’t highly literate in English as I am? Or have access to reliable, pro bono legal services as I did? (I’ll be forever grateful to Lutheran Community Services and Seattle Refugee Women’s Alliance.) My own roots in this country only go back two generations and my grandfather, arriving as “unskilled labor,” wouldn’t have been admitted if he’d been subject to today’s laws.
Considering that the agricultural industry in the U.S. has always needed immigrant labor, from African slaves to indentured servants, I’ve concluded, not by watching news headlines or presidential debates, but by meeting people and hearing their stories, that the only reason that the U.S. government can justify its current policies and practices that split families up randomly, is that it is profitable to do so. And, believing like I do in the principle that you reap what you sow, especially when someone else is doing the hard labor of reaping and sowing, shame on us for prioritizing profit over families.