Guest Editorial: Nation Needs to Confront the Face of Deportees

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Today, April 5th, actions throughout the United States will demand that President Obama put a stop to deportations. This growing national movement is questioning the “immigration debate” at a profound level: If the Department of Homeland Security is supposed to be targeting criminals, why is Obama deporting youth and adults without criminal histories? Why is ICE separating working immigrant families?

Last month Santa Ana residents and media visited La Casa del Migrante and Casa Madre Asunta — male and female shelters in Tijuana. Many deportees arrive without money or clothing, without social ties, to a country immersed in crime and violence. The visit was planned as an opportunity to see face-to-face just who is being deported and how current deportation policies (e.g. Secure Communities, police-ICE collaboration and Santa Ana Jail’s own ICE contract) are impacting families. Radio Santa Ana and members of RAIZ, a Santa Ana-based youth organization leading the “Keep Our Families Together” campaign, interviewed migrants who had previously lived in Santa Ana.

Heriberta Mejilla, separated from her two U.S.-born children, shared her story: “I arrived in the US when I was 20 years old in 1985 and worked like a warrior. … I worked in construction for over 13 years; all those houses in Perris and Moreno Valley, we built those houses. I have check stubs that show how I paid taxes all those years. … I gave so much to that government, and they just kicked me out. … Now I’m worried about how I’ll make ends meet.” Heriberta had been previously deported in 2003 and returned to the U.S. to be with her children. “They were so much younger then,” she explained.

This year, Mejilla told us, due to an unpaid ticket, she was stopped and arrested in Santa Ana, and after one month of imprisonment, she was denied the opportunity to fight her deportation.

“I’m worried my kids will start getting into trouble, since I’m not there to guide them. … I hope the president will do something for us who have been separated from our children.”

Thousands of children throughout the U.S., left alone due to their parents’ deportations, have been taken into the custody of Child Protective Services.

Sister Adelia Contini, director of the Instituto Madre Asunta shelter for migrant women and children in Tijuana, described the hoop-jumping parents must go through to retrieve their children from CPS. Social workers from each country must communicate to determine that parents are taking several “self-help” classes, have a full-time job, their own housing with a room for children, and other amenities. Fulfilling these and other requirements within a six-month time limit, considering Mexico’s current political and economic situation, is nearly impossible.

“Yet mothers do this, the impossible, to reunite with their children,” said Contini, “and we help with whatever we can.”

Last month’s visit, which included musical accompaniment, was coordinated by the Santa Ana-based Centro Cultural de México, as part of an ongoing transnational collaboration with La Casa del Migrante and Instituto Madre Asunta. On May 8th, the Centro will host Sister Adelia in Santa Ana and soon thereafter coordinate another visit to Tijuana. They are inviting both community partners and policymakers to participate and relate in person to the reality of deportation and the separation of families.

Orange County is responsible for 43 percent of youth ICE holds — a fact that has pushed local immigrant youth to action. In Santa Ana, the City Council is being pressured to publish a study of a controversial ICE contract for the use of local jail space, suspected to be losing the city money. Local community groups, including Keep Our Families Together, citing fiscal and humanitarian reasons, have called for the cancellation of this contract and are pushing the city of Santa Ana to stop honoring ICE holds.

Luis Sarmiento is a core volunteer at the Santa Ana-based Centro Cultural de México and leads a grassroots team working to produce Radio Santa Ana, a community radio for underrepresented voices in Orange County.

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