Couple’s plight spotlights need for immigration reform

| January 2, 2014 | 0 Comments

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Susan and her 8-year-old daughter drove from Minnesota to Laredo, Mexico, for a Christmastime family reunion. But, it was a bittersweet occasion.

Susan’s husband, Carlos, a Mexican native who was working for a Minnesota landscaping company, had been deported there just before Thanksgiving. He traveled all night by bus from Mexico City to be reunited with his family near the border.

“Our daughter was reunited with her father on a random street corner in Laredo,” Susan said. “She ran to hug him and laid her head on his chest and cried and cried. I could feel the pent up sadness, fear and relief coming out in her sobs.”

Carlos, an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. to find work, and Susan, a native Minnesotan, have been married for 10 years and are members of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in St. Paul.

The two asked The Catholic Spirit not to use their real names while they work to address Carlos’ status.

As Minnesotans prepare to mark Immigration Sunday on Jan. 5 — an observance designated by the state’s bishops to learn more about the Church’s teachings on immigration and raise awareness about immigration issues — the story of Carlos and Susan illustrates the challenges that many immigrant families face in trying to build better lives in the U.S.

Detention visits

Carlos was one of at least 34,000 undocumented immigrants held at any given time in prisons throughout the country. That number has been mandated since 2009, when some members of Congress thought that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement wasn’t doing enough to deport unlawful immigrants.

Because Susan and her daughter are American citizens with passports, they were able to travel to Mexico to be with Carlos for Christmas. Other families are not so lucky.

The problems for Susan and Carlos started last May when he was pulled over for a routine traffic stop and arrested for driving without a license. Several states allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license, but Minnesota does not.

“He knew he shouldn’t drive, but he needed to go to work,” Susan said.

After his arrest, he was detained at the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center in St. Paul for six months before being sent back to Mexico.

Susan took their daughter to visit Carlos in jail three times a week, the maximum allowed, she said. “We would go in and get 20 minutes on a phone with a little monitor where you couldn’t really see him,” she said. “When your time is up, it just shuts off — it goes black.”

Meanwhile, the lawyer fees and the loss of Carlos’ income have caused serious financial problems for the family.

In the midst of a situation like this, it’s easy to feel alone and that nobody cares, Susan said.

But after one particular visit to the detention center, she noticed members of the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration — an ecumenical group that sponsors prayer vigils at the detention center each month — and approached them.

“Finding these people that supported me that didn’t even have any family members that were immigrants, other than generations past . . . it was literally an oasis of support,” Susan said. “It was just amazing.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe parish is offering emotional support as well, said the pastor, Father Kevin Kenney, who visited Carlos while he was at the detention center.

While in detention in late October, Carlos found out on a Friday night that he would be deported as soon as the following Monday. “That’s how it happens,” Susan said. “They show up at jail, they take you and they don’t give you any warning.”

He was deported the following Tuesday. Susan, a teacher, found someone to cover her classes.

“I picked up my daughter and we went out to immigration,” she said. They wanted to see if they could visit him briefly before the bus left.

But they arrived to see the bus driver clicking his seatbelt, ready to drive away. Then, her daughter said, “Let’s just wave at the bus, maybe he’ll see.”

After their farewell gesture, they went home and waited to hear from him. “He called me and said he was on the other side of the border,” Susan said. “The minute I heard his voice I could tell he was so much better.”

And, he did see them waving, he said, according to Susan. “This is how it was: We were on the bus. It was moving and somebody in the bus said, ‘Someone is waving. Someone is waving,’ and everyone looked out to see who it was. I just got tears in my eyes because you guys waited.”

Keeping families together

To try to alleviate these kinds of agonizing scenarios for immigrant families, President Obama in August issued a directive urging authorities to take into consideration the family situation of detained undocumented immigrants and use discretion when detainees are parents of minor children.

But, more needs to be done to help people like Susan and Carlos, say advocates like Lisa Kremer, project coordinator for Abuelos y Nietos Juntos, a Minnesota organization dedicated to reunifying families separated by the immigration system. She believes grassroots efforts by citizens and faith communities could be a key part of the solution.

“What we need most is for people of faith and justice to really stand in defense of immigrants being treated badly, not to mention those who die making the dangerous trek across the desert,” Kremer said.

“It’s important to remember the reasons that people come here,” she said. “Their first choice is not to break the law. It bothers them that they are doing that, but they don’t feel that they have other options when they live in a place where they can’t feed their families and they can’t send their children to school.

“We need to recognize the contributions our immigrants make to our society and our economy. We need to understand the dire circumstances in their home countries, the reasons they leave their families and their countries and make the perilous journey here.”

In their 2012 statement, “Unlocking the Gate in our Hearts,” on the need for federal immigration reform, the bishops of Minnesota outlined what is needed for compassionate and just reform.

They said such reform should include:

  • An earned legalization program for foreign nationals of good moral character.
  • Policies designed to keep families together.
  • A revamped temporary worker program that protects both the workers who come to the United States and U.S.-citizen workers.
  • The restoration of immigrants’ due process rights.
  • An effort to meaningfully address the root cause of migration, such as underdevelopment and poverty in countries of immigrant origin.

According to Kremer, a good first step for those wishing to get involved is simply to meet someone from across the border.

“I wish that every American citizen could come to personally know one of our immigrants and hear their story,” she said, “because in personal relationships compassion is born.”

For more information about Immigration Sunday, visit the Minnesota Catholic Conference website at mncc.org.

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