International Journal of

Communal and Transgenerational Trauma

Journal of
International Humanistic Psychology Association

Documenting an Undocumented History: A Counter-Narrative of Americans, Their Deportations, and Their Separated Families

Abstract
This research explores the gaps in our larger conversation of undocumented immigration and undocumented families’ deportations, separations, and preservation of family unity within the last decade. While dominant narratives about undocumented immigration focus on political standings, federal regulations, and statistics, this paper provides six individuals’ experiences told through oral history interviews and the author’s own personal account to combat and expand the dominant narrative.

Keywords: immigration, deportation, trauma, family separations

¿Por qué Why
ya no podemos hablar can we no longer talk
sin una guerra empezar? without starting a war?
Y la queremos ganar And wanting to win it
Y la queremos ganar And wanting to win it

¿A dónde vamos a parar? Where are we going to end up, Con esta hiriente y absurda actitud with this painful & absurd attitude? Démosle paso a la humildad Let’s take a step towards being meek Y vamos a la intimidad and let’s go to the intimacy
De nuestras almas en toda plenitud of our souls to the fullest

¿A dónde vamos a parar? Where are we going to end up? Cayendo siempre en el mismo error Always making the same mistake, Dándole siempre más valor always giving more value A todo, menos el amor to everything, but love.2

–Marco Antonio Solís

Introdución

The land between the United States and México is filled with extensive history, adaptations, and labels. Up until recently, a monument was erected not only to physically divide these two nations, but to remind foreigners of the exclusivity of American citizenship—that monument is the border. Historian CJ Alvarez introduces the U.S.-México border as an area not visited by most Americans, yet political opinions condense our spatial imagination of 1,954 miles into “a single place, a single thing.”3 The complex symbolism of the border and those who have a “toxic relationship” with it have been grossly diluted if not completely ignored.4 American society suffers from a state of scant empathy, inadequate action, and erroneous neglect towards survivors of this toxic relationship. The act of crossing the U.S.-México border into the United States has been criminalized, causing American society to view an illegal crossing as a direct attack to our country versus understanding this act for what it really is: an aspiration for a better life. This paper examines how American society has justified and consequently erased from its memory its crime against families by separating them in the name of national security. To remember these separations is to undergo an extraordinary fight against suppression and silence. To neglect these separations is the greatest act of violence against one of America’s principal values: families. Without a doubt, border policies cultivate national trauma for selected American families.

In my research, I analyze five individuals who have bravely agreed to share their experiences as survivors of family separation due to Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) interventions. I use pseudonyms to protect my interviewees’ privacy and share a few non- identifying details to remind readers of their humanity, which is so often disregarded by American institutions. Four of my five interviewees are part of the Villarreal family.5 Amlo and Elizabeth Villarreal, both currently in their early 50s, migrated to the United States from México. They began to center their lives in Southern California in their late teens, early twenties, the stage in which individuals are confronted by the challenges of emerging adulthood. Over the span of ten years, the Villarreals had four children—Esmeralda, Elena, Alexandria, and Sebastian—and were deported before their eldest turned 18 in May 2012. The Villarreal children who were interviewed, Esmeralda and Alexandria, are currently 26 and 19 years old.

My fifth interviewee, Ricky Leva, is the eldest son of deported parents.6 Similar to Amlo and Elizabeth, Ricky’s parents migrated to Southern California separately, then met, married, and had their two sons. Ricky’s parents were deported in August and September 2017, leaving Ricky and his younger brother, Eddie, behind when they were just 20 and 14 years old, respectively. Currently, Ricky is a few months shy of turning 24 years old. While we see distinctions between generations, we also see interesting parallels between these individuals, like the startling resilience these survivors exhibit despite the persistent reality of their devastating separation. Analyzing their interviews, I argue that the public memory of undocumented Americans and their separated families are absent in its true form from the minds of Americans. This absence constitutes a framework in which trauma and consequences stemming from deportations have gone unrecorded, permitting continued abuse towards undocumented families.

No matter how well one is versed in the English and Spanish languages, it is virtually impossible to capture the message behind words in translation. Therefore, I have transcribed my interviews and provide the exact responses in this paper—regardless of the language that was used. I translate what I think is being communicated when Spanish is used. Investigative reporter Melissa del Bosque emphasizes the importance of collecting various memories to fill in the gaps left by collective trauma which may hinder a survivor’s memory.7 Therefore, I share my own anecdotes since my interviewees’ experiences align with my own experiences as a daughter of deported parents. There are some gaps in my interviewees’ memories and in my own, but, taken together, these stories produce enough beats for readers to follow the rhythm of heartache within this collective trauma. I do not claim that this is representative of all separated families’ experiences, but these conversations reveal a grain of collective memory shared by coercively separated American families through deportation.

Undocumented American families are not limited to families in which all members are undocumented, as the current narrative stereotypically holds.8 I use the term “undocumented American families” to describe families that have at least one undocumented member. The head(s) of the family, usually the parents, work towards achieving financial and social escalation that would not be available to them in their country of origin. Sooner or later, one or both parents experience deportation, which causes instability in the family. The dominant narrative erroneously claims that after deportation undocumented families strive for reunification by either re-entering the United States illegally or arrange for the migration of the remaining members, usually the child(ren), into the parent or parents’ country of origin.9 Yet this dominant narrative fails to capture the reality of undocumented American families who continue to live on both sides of the border after being separated by ICE. I offer a counter narrative to shed light on this particular consequence of family separation to rectify a glaring oversight.

To counter this narrative, I first examine historical and contemporary analyses of immigration policies, deconstructing what the border symbolized for my interviewees prior to deportation. Next, I analyze the rhetoric around ICE as a benevolent institution and look at its legacy through the recollection of deportation. Finally, I produce a publicly engaging counter memory by examining the ongoing legacies of these displaced families, their stories, and their place in public memory with a humane approach.10 Ultimately, I argue that these memories have not been afforded enough attention in popular culture or academia.

La Frontera: Early Perceptions

To begin understanding the implications that encompass separation, I sought to uncover what the border represented to my subjects prior to their deportation or their family member’s deportation. The experiences of undocumented Americans contrast that of American citizens. In this case, immigrant parents and American-born children hold different interpretations of what the border represented to them before ICE removed the parents from this country.

As American children—more precisely, American-born citizens—Alexandria, Esmeralda, and Ricky recalled interpreting the border, or la frontera, as a one-dimensional, literal, and figurative object. Alexandria admitted that she knew there was something more to the border. Although she never knew what was symbolic about the border, she recalled for the most part that it was a fence. Esmeralda and Ricky, being the eldest children in their families, both shared popular understandings of the purpose of the wall: national security. Yet, like Alexandria, they also concluded that it was just a fence; it is worth pointing out that all three interviewees used this exact same phrase.11 These first-generation American children may have made these early interpretations because they possess a privilege their parents lack: citizenship. However, although American-born children of immigrants are shielded legally from political rejection, they continue to live a reality of exclusion vicariously through the status of their parents. Alexandria, Ricky, and Esmeralda had a culturally-hybrid interpretation of la frontera: neither the dominant American (la frontera as national security) nor Mexican (la frontera as a challenge of survival for a better life) interpretation of the border was absolute in their minds. They understood the border as an object necessary for national security, yet because of their parents’ immigration status, the children knew that there was more to the border than just national security.

This culturally-hybrid interpretation, although unclear to many first-generation Latin Americans, stretches into a feeling of entrapment that migrant parents feel. Amlo and Elizabeth’s early interpretations of the border align closely with that of “una jaula de oro,” or “a golden cage.”12 While Amlo considered la frontera the obstacle between him and the opportunities he longed to grasp, Elizabeth reflected on the crude reality undocumented Americans face once residing al otro lado (on the other side). She relayed, “El muro es una división que nos divide con nuestros seres queridos, nuestros padres, nuestros hermanos, nuestras familias (The wall is a division that separates us from our loved ones, our parents, our siblings, our family).”13 Compared to Alexandria, Esmeralda, and Ricky’s responses, we see la frontera from a more abstract lens in the parents’ view. Whereas Alexandria, Esmeralda, and Ricky’s interpretations were limited to the physical aspects of the border, undocumented Americans Amlo and Elizabeth were burdened with the literal and figurative division that la frontera symbolizes for them and countless Americans. Amlo and Elizabeth’s interpretation transcends the dominant perspective of the border existing for national security, as Esmeralda and Ricky were taught in school. To the parents, la frontera represents division, pain, and loss—all of which are largely neglected when the memory of la frontera is overwritten by national security.

Anti-immigrant groups question why immigrants would choose to illegally cross the border versus legally crossing to access the opportunities of the United States, which supposedly would eliminate the “need” for family separation. The reality of the legal option entails a decade- long process, often leading to a denied visa and/or application for residency.14 One reason why the challenging process of obtaining legal entry to the United States is unknown to most Americans is due in part to the “moment of fact assembly.” According to Haitian scholar Michel- Rolph Trouillot, this moment is achieved when an event is limited in its presentation through an emphasis on a set of attractive “artifacts” or, simply, “facts.” Consequently, artifacts deemed unimportant are shunted from public consciousness as the focus centralizes around the artifacts deemed as important.15 In other words, a moment of fact assembly situates the popular conversation as the dominant narrative, hindering a more complete understanding of the cultural artifacts in question.

In 1965, the Hart-Celler Act was passed and applauded as a progressive accomplishment. This act resulted in the successful reversal of the racist national origin quota system.16 However, the Hart-Celler Act also placed a ceiling for migrants from the Western Hemisphere to 120,000 visas per year.17 As a result, Mexican migrants have been competing with other Latin Americans, Canadians, and each other for legal entry into the United States ever since, completely disregarding the decades of friendly political relations between the United States and México. The new visa policy displaced Mexican migrants who had been practicing “circular migration” for years since it added legal documentation as a requirement to gain access to seasonal jobs in the U.S. when it had not previously.18 Taking into consideration the limited opportunities for social advancement in México, this immigration law has forced Mexicans to choose between investing money and years in a visa application, that may or may not get approved, or pack a few essential items and migrate illegally al otro lado.19 Many undocumented Americans chose the latter.

The passage of the Hart-Celler Act, however, was only the beginning of what would become today’s immigration policy. About twenty years later during the Reagan era, hegemonic powers claimed that the American drug epidemic was directly linked to and caused by Latin America and México.20 This enabled popular stereotypes to pervade, morphing dominant perspectives on individuals originating from countries south of the United States border. During the Clinton administration, legislation such as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) built upon these racist and misleading perceptions, conflating public ideologies of undocumented immigration with national security and crime.21 Lastly, after the infamous 9/11 terrorist attacks half a decade after the IIRIRA, we witnessed not only the support for outrageous military funding to regain a sense of security, but also experienced the permanent tethering of crime and undocumented immigration. In the words of sociologist Patrisia Macias-Rojas, immigration underwent “crimmigration,” and the law was not extended to help those accused of committing it.22 Both the Reagan and Clinton administrations made immigration reform and policies politically volatile by linking undocumented immigrants with a sense of breached national security.

Following 9/11, Americans adopted violent narratives against undocumented Americans.
Scholar Maria Saldaña-Portillo highlights the hypocrisy in governmental claims for increased national security at the southern border by pointing out that

[While Canada] is the leading foreign supplier of ecstasy, often laced with highly addictive methamphetamines…[and] El Paso, Texas, just across the bridge from Ciudad Juárez, is consistently ranked the safest city in the United States… the southern hemisphere and the México–U.S. border continue to draw the military heat because of the myopic focus on marijuana, heroin, and cocaine.23

Despite statistics debunking exaggerated claims associating Mexicans and Latin Americans with criminality, the strategic use of terms such as “national defense” implies that protection is taking place at the border and that our international neighbors pose a threat. Consequently, we have not seen comprehensive immigration reform since the 1980s, which produces a sense of entrapment in “la jaula de oro” amongst undocumented Americans. These moments of fact assembly, including the passage of the Hart-Celler Act, Illegal Immigration Reform, and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, have compelled American consciousness to celebrate momentary “solutions” to perceived immigration issues despite the consequences imposed on the other Americans. Instead of symbolizing “just a fence,” la frontera manifests a false sense of American peril at the cost of repression for nontraditional Americans.

No hay peor ciego que el que no quiere ver | There is no worse blind man than he who wishes not to see

Popular narratives and increased national defense policies along the southern border have led to violent narratives against immigrants. In recent years, the United States was subjected to fabricated claims that reinforced the cycle of repression against undocumented Americans. On June 16, 2016, then presidential candidate Donald Trump shocked the world by complaining that México sends “their worst people” to America. More specifically, he targeted Mexicans for being “rapists” and for “bringing drugs…bringing crime” past the golden gates of the United States. 24 These false claims cause harm in various ways, ultimately continuing a porous memory of undocumented Americans in which selective facts behind illegal immigration are manipulated to construct a negative image no matter the motive for migration.

Trump’s statements enabled a familiar type of institutional discrimination often experienced by ethnic groups vulnerable to racism. The murder of Vincent Chin in the 1980s is an illustrative example of this dynamic. With the rise of the Japanese auto industry at the height of American deindustrialization, anti-Japanese and anti-Asian sentiment fueled the nation. Two white men, father and son, brutally beat Chinese American Vincent Chin to death on the day before his wedding, allegedly mistaking him as Japanese. Historian Masako Iino writes, “The incident dearly showed that the anti-Japan and anti-Japanese feelings could be turned against Japanese Americans, and also other Asian Americans.”25 Similarly, Trump’s demeaning claims targeting Mexicans are mirrored onto Central Americans, and this pattern of “mistaken identity” racism has real physical repercussions.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018 both U.S.-born and foreign-born Hispanics in the United States experienced “at least one of four offensive incidents in the past year because of their Hispanic background.”26 These incidents include experiencing discrimination or unfair treatment because of their Hispanic background, being criticized for speaking Spanish in public, being told to go back to their home country, or being called offensive names.27 Here, we see parallels between Asian Americans and Latin Americans in the sense of collective rejection. Additionally, it is worth highlighting that the same study reported that an overwhelming number of participants expressed pride in being American, and if given an opportunity to migrate to the United States again, they conveyed that they would absolutely take it. 28 However, the sentiments of Americanness reported in this research are not reciprocated, as exemplified in the various policies stemming from dangerously false claims like those made by Trump. These policies tremendously impact undocumented American families because the consequences affect each individual in the family, whether American citizen or not.

Amlo and his daughter, Alexandria, explained how these ideologies uphold the hegemonic order regarding immigration.29 Amlo claimed that opinions, such as those expressed by President Trump, “Se equivocan pluralizando a la sociedad y eso hace apuntar y enfocar muchas de las veces, sobretodo en, los intereses politicos, personales; se interesan mucho poner la inmigración como obstáculo (Commit a mistake by pluralizing society and that points to and focuses many times, especially on, political and personal interests; they are very interested in putting immigration as an obstacle).”30 In other words, Amlo claims that these comments may be strategically repeated to perpetuate the idea of immigration as an obstacle to the health and prosperity of American society. Alexandria expanded on her father’s opinion:

I think a lot of it is displaced anger or frustration…because [Americans] lost their job…and an undocumented immigrant who [is] willing to work for less [money] was able to take that position; [Americans] just seem to get really angry and displace that anger with the undocumented person when in reality [the injustice stems from our] capitalist society [in which] people at the top are trying to make as much profit instead of paying the fair share of the work that is being done. 31

Bridging Amlo and Alexandria’s analysis, we see that the general American population is provided with violent interpretations (rapists, drug dealers, and criminals) of undocumented Americans by the state (President Trump), which is then passively accepted and believed, distracting Americans from the root sources of harm and economic inequality. This ideology that blames immigrants, in turn, enables the marginalization of undocumented Americans in economic, cultural, and legal ways.

With the history of la frontera and its powerful effect on larger society’s reception to undocumented Americans, I offer a counter argument to what many undocumented and documented Americans falsely believe: citizenship encompasses protections and benefits Americans deserve. Analyzing the memories of the deportation process through the lens of the Villarreal and Leva family, we see how ICE officers target not only undocumented individuals, but their children as well, regardless of citizenship status.

Ese maldito día | That damned day

The media limits how we think about and remember deportation by the narratives it chooses to focus on, typically focusing on one of three things: the current rate of deportations, the current administration’s statement about immigration, and/or a comparison of Democratic and Republican work regarding immigration.32 Not only do these narratives dominate our collective memory, they fail to depict what the act of deportation actually looks and feels like for those impacted. The act of deportation creates a vicious cycle of overexploitation, while also silencing the voices of undocumented Americans in the process. I focus on the unjustifiable effects that overcome deported individuals and their families after ICE removes them from their home. My goal is to capture the act of deportation as experienced by the Villarreal and Leva family to remind readers of the physical and emotional reality that deportation entails, something that is otherwise not given a platform in traditional narratives about deportation.

As an individual who also lives with the trauma of family separation, something that makes me question my own capabilities and existence every day, I felt myself battling the emotions I had suppressed for years when interviewing the Villarreal family and Ricky Leva. What occurs to these so-called “bad hombres” on the day of their deportation?33 The Villarreal family’s life quite literally flipped upside down overnight. Amlo, Elizabeth, Esmeralda, and Alexandria recollected a sequence of events that raises questions about the ethics and morality behind deportation. It occurred on a Friday in May 2012. Both Amlo and Elizabeth began their day with their routine schedule: Amlo was heading to work in his GMC G-3500, and Elizabeth was dropping off her two youngest children at school to then drive to her domestic labor job. On her way to drop off her last child, Elizabeth was pulled over by an unmarked SUV. At that moment, her curious 6-year-old son, Sebastian, took his seat belt off to turn around and observe the officer who was approaching their vehicle. Elizabeth was asked for her driver’s license, proof of insurance, and vehicle registration. Elizabeth recalls presenting her identification card from México, or her CURP, and an expired license.34 The reason behind her expired license was not due to her unwillingness to renew it, rather her inability to do so due to California measures.

In 1993, the California Legislature passed Senate Bill 976 targeting and excluding undocumented Americans from attaining a driver’s license.35 This discriminatory law impeded Elizabeth’s ability to legally drive on the streets of Southern California. The unmarked officer asked her to step outside of the vehicle, and, upon looking in the backseat, the officer told Sebastian, “Since you do not have your seatbelt on, I have to take your mom.” Elizabeth recalled,

Entiendo de que por mis errores—por no haber entrado a los Estados Unidos legalmente— tuve que sufrir yo; pero no había necesidad de traumatizar a mi niño de esa manera. Lo más fuerte de ese día no fue que me deportaron, sino que dejaron a mi niño gritando que no me llevaran. Que lo sentía y no se quitaría su cinturón. (I understand that because of my mistakes—illegally entering the United States—I had to pay the price; but there was no need to traumatize my son like that. The hardest thing that day was not my deportation, rather, it was hearing my son screaming and crying as they took me. He cried that he was sorry and that he would not take off his seatbelt again.)36

Elizabeth’s response implies what the dominant perception of immigration practices holds,—she must be punished for coming to the United States undocumented—and neglects her trauma by focusing on her son’s trauma. When considering philosopher Michel Foucault’s analysis of discipline, it becomes clear that Elizabeth submitted to policing herself according to societal expectations because she acknowledged that she was an unwanted member of the community.
By doing so, she condemned her actions of residing in the United States to balance out the seriousness of her “crime.” 37 Building onto this, she then devalued the severity of her trauma by echoing the last painful words she heard from her son while she was still on U.S. soil. Despite participating in the hegemonic ideals regarding undocumented immigrants, Elizabeth questioned the traumatic experience Sebastian witnessed, which he should have been protected from.
Americans should not face the excessive trauma that Sebastian was put through. Thus, Elizabeth allowed herself to be excluded from the framework of American society while simultaneously questioning the same framework that should have prioritized her son as an American citizen.

Amlo was stopped less than a mile away by another unmarked SUV, possibly at the same time as Elizabeth. He remembered the officers’ reason for stopping him being bogus, and Amlo determined on his own that he was being detained by ICE. He explained that he felt humiliated and degraded as he was not only cuffed on his wrists, but his ankles as well. Once they arrived at the Los Angeles detention center, reality sunk in as Amlo and Elizabeth realized they were not detained individually, but together. They thought about their four underaged children.38 Amlo elaborated,

Adentro, les pedimos la llamada que todos dicen que es el derecho, y nos la negaron por unas cuantas horas. Cuando la obtuve, llamé a un familiar y él mandó su abogado, pero no permitieron su entrada. Me metieron a un cuarto para que firmara el papel de la salida voluntaria, pero me negué. Entonces, entre dos me agarraron a la fuerza para si quiera forzar mis huellas como firma en ese papel…pedimos un juez para negociar algo de tiempo por los niños, y nos dijeron, “Ustedes no tienen derechos de pedir un juez. Son ilegales.” (Inside, we requested the phone call people say is given as a right, but they delayed it for a few hours. When I finally got it, I called a family member, and he sent his lawyer. But they didn’t let him enter the building. I was placed in a room to sign the voluntary leave form, but I denied it. Thus, between two officers, they tried forcing my fingerprint on the paper as a signature…we requested a judge to negotiate some time to see what we would do about our children, and they told us, “You have no right to see a judge. You are illegal.”) 39

Amlo demonstrated that he was well informed of the universal rights for individuals detained in the United States. In a web post taylored to undocumented individuals, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provides recommendations on common scenarios that arise when individuals are detained by ICE or other law enforcement so that the individual can know their rights. The ACLU’s advice, however, assumes that law enforcement always responds according to what is legally required of them.40 What happens when these officers fail to follow proper, legal procedures while dealing with undocumented Americans? ACLU advises individuals to write down identification information of the officers involved in the arrest or encounter. Yet in both Amlo and Elizabeth’s recollection, this was impossible since the vehicles and officers themselves were unmarked and, thus, unidentifiable. How can these officers be held accountable, then? Based on his accounts, Amlo was not only deprived of his universal rights, but also taunted by ICE (cuffed by both his wrists and ankles, forced to leave fingerprints in place of a signature, denied legal representation, and recognized as less than human) and left without an avenue for justice.

Outside the detention center, Elizabeth and Amlo’s youngest child was left in the care of one of Elizabeth’s cousins, Jackie.41 Jackie called Esmeralda to notify her that someone had taken their mother. Esmeralda was a month shy of graduating high school, where she was enrolled with her sister, Elena. Jackie was authorized by the school to take the girls home early, and while Elena stayed at home, Esmeralda and Jackie went from police station to police station searching for any information that could lead them to Amlo and Elizabeth. After a few hours, Esmeralda, Elena, and Jackie received a call from another family member informing them that the Villarreal parents were taken to the Los Angeles ICE detention center and were waiting to be transported to Tijuana at 4 o’clock.42 During this time, Alexandria was left in school, receiving the news from a friend that her mother had been arrested. She explained,

That entire day I spent it kind of pensive and worried about what had happened…what was weird was that my sister’s boyfriend went to pick [me] up…he walked me all the way into the house…I opened the door [and] my sister was in the kitchen, crying. My second sister…patted the couch for me to sit…she said that my parents had gotten deported and at that moment I just remembered [long pause, voice began trembling] about all those nights that I had prayed, and I felt betrayed…I felt stripped and violated, and something had been ripped away from me. I was grateful that nothing worse had happened to them and that they were still alive, but just that physical separation of your parents…no child should be put through that.43

By 8 o’clock on the day of Amlo and Elizabeth’s arrest, the Villarreal children received a call from Amlo indicating that their parents were in Tijuana.

In the Villarreal family’s story of separation, we are faced with details that raise questions about the true intentions of ICE. Regardless of ethnicity, location, and time, family separation entails a crude, violent trauma. Is the Villarreal family’s trauma justified because Amlo and Elizabeth lacked citizenship status? Media sources recall deportation differently compared to the Villarreals’ experiences, with deportation occurring in the middle of the night when Americans are fast asleep.44 In the Villarreals’ experience, detainment and deportation took place with the American population wide awake and in broad daylight. Perhaps drivers stuck on the Interstate 5 freeway got a glimpse of Amlo and Elizabeth’s bus as they were taken towards San Ysidrio’s port of exit.

Adding to the Villarreal family’s experiences, Ricky Leva offers a distinct, but equally traumatic recollection of his parents’ deportation. Ricky’s parents were deported a month apart from one another. As Ricky explained, the Leva parents had entered the United States illegally, but resided in Southern California with a work permit. They were required to check in on assigned dates to an ICE field office to renew their work permits. In 2017, however, the Leva parents were requested to check in on different dates than usual. Ricky’s mother had her appointment before her husband, and this alone caused suspicion amongst the Leva family.
Ricky always accompanied his parents to their immigration appointments out of habit, and on the morning of his 20th birthday, he returned home without his mom. While facing the ICE officer who handled the Leva case, Ricky recalled how his mother was “trying to be strong and not cry. She even told the officer, ‘Well, what a perfect gift for his birthday.’”45 His psyche was branded with a similar form of guilt that young SebastianVillarreal had experienced. Ricky admitted, “I felt like I turn[ed] her in.”46

Finding separated undocumented families to interview and study for this research was difficult; to find two families in which at least one member feels responsible for their parent’s deportation is astonishing. Considering both Sebastian and Ricky’s stories, it is difficult to neglect the similarities that run between them. Although Sebastian was told by the ICE officer that he was responsible for his mother’s arrest due to his unbuckled seat belt, Ricky was pierced with guilt because, in his mind, he had driven the car to his mother’s arrest. This guilt is a tremendous weight to place on children, yet ICE disregards the wellbeing of those under arrest and the family members that are left behind. These American-born children are just as neglected and consequently rejected as their undocumented parents.

A week after his mother’s deportation, Ricky’s father had his appointment. By contrast, Ricky’s father persuaded the officer to grant him one month’s time to make arrangements for his children, home, vehicles, and accounts. As promised, Ricky’s father returned exactly one month later to comply with his deportation order. Ricky remembered anticipating his father’s call during his morning sociology class, which he left early due to his inability to focus. Ricky set off to the ICE detention center without explaining to his professor what had been going on. After minutes of banging on the lobby window demanding to speak with the same officer that handled his mother’s case, Ricky was granted a few minutes to speak to his father. Ricky recalled that while he was waiting to see his dad,

[The officer] went and made me sit in some other dude’s office. And [the second officer] was like, “What are you trying to be when you grow up?” And I was like, “I don’t know? Probably a police officer…” And he was like, “Yeah, you’d make it. You should try to be one of us.” And I was like, “No, stop right there! I am never going to be one of you guys… you may be proud, doing what you’re doing. I would never.” And I got up and walked away and he was just kinda like, oh shit, you know? Then, the [first officer] came in as [I was] walking out and was like, “Oh, I have your dad on the phone if you’d like to talk to him real quick.”47

Contrary to popular belief, Ricky’s father is a prime example of undocumented Americans’ willingness to abide by the law. Instead of running away from ICE, Mr. Leva used his last month in the United States to tend to his family’s future needs. Ricky’s father’s compliance counters general assumptions that undocumented Americans are dishonest and criminal, as Trump suggested. Once Ricky finally got in contact with his father, Mr. Leva revealed that he was never offered a phone call despite his willingness to comply.

From Ricky’s encounter, ICE’s behavior provides a ghostly resemblance to that of Mr. and Mrs. Villarreal’s experience; it is undeniably mocking. Whereas the Villarreals were mocked for their lack of citizenship and treated inhumanely, Ricky’s emotions and trauma were mocked while his father was held for deportation. From one perspective, by suggesting that Ricky should embody the entity that yanked his parents from him and his brother, and consequently destabilizing the family, the ICE agent belittled the Leva family’s traumatic experience as if they were a unit unable to feel the effects of separation as any normal family. From a different angle, this specific mockery reinforces Ricky’s guilt over his mother’s deportation because ICE communicated to Ricky that they saw a part of themselves in him. Without a doubt, ICE’s goal is to not only separate families physically, but also mentally.

Although this research is limited to the Villarreals’ and Leva’s viewpoints and experiences on deportation, it is clear that ICE bears little to no space for empathy. On ICE’s official webpage, the first half of their mission statement reads, “ICE’s mission is to protect America from the cross-border crime and illegal immigration that threaten national security and public safety.”48 If indeed ICE’s mission was upheld, Mr. and Mrs. Leva should have been excluded from being targets of the agency. They both held active working permits and contributed to American society for decades. How was this a threat to national security and public safety? Contrary to the dominant narrative, the Levas and the Villarreals increased national security and public safety through their model-behavior, holding clean records and raising their children to do the same. They contributed to America economically after decades of paying taxes to the government.

This is not to say that nonworking undocumented Americans do not deserve the same protections and human rights. Rather, when deconstructing ICE’s mission against these two case studies, we can infer that ICE holds intentions to exploit undocumented Americans. If their goal, truly, is to protect America from individuals posing a threat to national security and public safety, why would a family, such as the Levas, be allowed to work legally in the United States? The Leva parents were permitted to work in America for more than two decades, but their contributions were met with their coerced removal from the country and the displacement of their U.S.-born children. Using ICE’s logic, how does removing Ricky’s parents protect Ricky and his brother Eddie, both American citizens? The message ICE seems to communicate to American-born citizens of undocumented families is that agony is inevitable. The United States Immigration and Custom Enforcement represents, like many other American institutions, a duplicity that harms marginalized people in the pursuit of protecting those it deems worthy.

There is absolutely no justification for the abuse, humiliation, and taunting that comes with an already traumatic event. Deportation inflicts pain to all members, and based on the Villarreal family and Ricky’s recollections, ICE provides minimal, if any, empathy. In fact, ICE seems to ensure the process is burned in the memories of these families, branding them with shock and irreversible scars. All the while, American society is left with the framework confining undocumented Americans to explicit, negative categorization—aliens, illegal immigrants, and “bad hombres.” In analyzing labels such as these, we must remember what scholar Ann Laura Stoler points out: “Social etymologies…attend to the social relationships of power buried and suspended in those terms.”49 In other words, demeaning terms such as these act as state-sponsored violence, which further upholds hegemonic American values and attitudes against undocumented Americans. We must not forget that these attitudes sanction the daily struggles and trauma that challenge my interviewees and millions of families after deportation.

In both families I interviewed, the members left behind were American-born citizens. Cut from their parents’ immediate and financial support—not to mention, left at an extremely young age—one would think that these children received support from the community or the state.
However, not one interviewee recalled any assistance from an outside source other than family. Amlo, Elizabeth, and Ricky provided recollections of outsiders from their communities, who used their power to inflict unnecessary pain. In Esmeralda’s testimony, school office staff allowed Jackie to take Esmeralda and Elena home, which can be constituted as indirect help since the school avoided keeping the remaining family apart during school hours. Yet, no one recalled receiving assistance from Child Protective Services (CPS) or other guardians of children in the community. If any help was offered, it was minimal enough to be dislodged from my interviewees’ memories.

In my own experience, my parents were deported when I was fifteen. That entire week, I remember fearing further separation from my siblings by CPS. To avoid detection, my siblings and I slept at my aunt and her family’s tiny, two-bedroom home until an uncle returned from México to stay with us. My cousins’ room held seven children—my aunt’s three kids, my sibling, and myself. My siblings and I slept on the floor, and we joked amongst my cousins about feeling like tamales bunched up in one room. Despite my relief after a month had gone by and no government agent had come to our home, I was surprised and felt insignificant. I questioned our value in society since multiple parties like our school and ICE knew about our situation as four unaccompanied (for all they knew), underaged siblings recently removed from our parents.

The absence of help counters the romanticized myth that we live in a child-friendly society.50 In his analysis of children in American history, historian Steven Mintz argues that Americans hold a nostalgic memory of childhood that is simply a story we tell ourselves about ourselves; it is a porous memory combining elements of reality and fantasy. Through historical deconstruction, he argues a counter narrative of American childhood in which children have been anything but happy and innocent due to the direct and indirect neglect of adults and the state.51 While his work ended at the turn of the twenty-first century, the Villarreal and Leva children prove that Mintz’s counter narrative holds true today.

Yá me cansé de llorar y no amanece | I am tired of crying and dawn has not yet broken
What occurs to families after they have become separated? While there are countless avenues taken, all ultimately lead to two basic outcomes. Either the family lives with la frontera dividing them, or families begin a new life beyond it. The Villarreal and Leva family, as well as my own, chose the former. This decision is an extremely difficult one. Although the former choice allows those left behind to take advantage of the opportunities undocumented Americans migrated for, it also robs parents from carrying their duties as parents and leaves children feeling unsupported, overwhelmed, and rushed into adulthood. The Villarreal family, Ricky, and I have persistently felt entrapped in a long night full of sorrow and pain waiting for dawn to break.

All my interviewees emphasized that the greatest interruption for families separated by ICE deportations is the way in which children are forced to experience coming of age in unique manners. While Amlo focused on the inevitable needs of his children, Elizabeth highlighted the magnitude of which these circumstances are affecting children.52 She mentioned how she has prayed more than ever during these last nine years for her children’s safety and success but cannot imagine what it would be like if her children were bunched up like animals in cages.53

Amongst the younger members of these separated families, Alexandria, Esmeralda, and Ricky reminisce over the years they’ve spent without their parents. Although they are all fortunate enough to have legal access to exit and enter the United States as American citizens, they agreed that this familial circumstance falls short compared to the experiences children and parents should have with daily face-to-face interactions. Alexandria reminds us that spectators can disconnect themselves from these realities by focusing on other topics, but for her,

…it’s very difficult. Even in society, having to explain why I can’t mark this box [when] filling out FAFSA because my family is different…having to explain to a counselor why [I am] having such a hard time identifying [with] a certain category, it makes [me] feel even more marginalized. [I] already check…that…I am a female—which it makes it somehow more difficult to make it in this patriarchal society. [I mark] that [I am] Hispanic and Latina and that somehow makes it even more difficult. But having a different situation in which [I] have to say that you don’t live with [my] parents and [my] situation is very complicated, um, that just makes it even more difficult. 54

What Alexandria highlighted in this section is a “matrix of domination” unique to her by deconstructing each factor contributing to the inequality she and other daughters of deported parents face in American society. According to Healy et al., intersectionality is a concept that

acknowledges that everyone has multiple group memberships and that these crisscross and create different experiences for people with varying combinations of statuses… in terms of separate simple dichotomous systems, based on class, race, gender, or some other criterion…intersectional approach analyzes how these statuses link together and form a “matrix of domination.”55

Furthermore, Alexandria produced a specific memory following her parents’ deportation, one that haunts her amidst her aspirations for social escalation through higher education. In a society where she feels like her situation is rarely reflected and much less supported, we can interpret the repeated mention of the word “difficult” in Alexandria’s testimony as symbolic of her increasing frustrations as a participant in the institution of education. Her intersectional identity, in other words, was further complicated and marginalized by the deportation of her parents.

In the same way Alexandria was reminded of her peculiar familial circumstances, Esmeralda shifted focus on how the absence of immediate, vis-à-vis parental guidance can harm an adolescent financially. She admitted to collecting extensive debt for her younger siblings in order to fill the unexpected void of her parents. Esmeralda recalled how she got her first job almost half a year after her parents’ deportation when she turned eighteen. She worked at the community college she attended through the work study program and was paid once a month for the limited 19.5 hours a week she was allowed to work. She joked, “I was balling with $700 a month.”56 Although her younger sister, Elena, worked to help contribute to the family’s income, Elena was limited to a part-time position due to her lack of work experience and youthful age.
This was clearly not enough of an income for a family of four.57 In a capitalist society hungry to entangle youth in credit card debt, it is understandable how Esmeralda became victim to marketing strategies offering financial access when her parents were deported.58 Today, almost nine years after her parents’ deportation, she is still paying off that debt.59 On the surface, Esmeralda’s racked up debt may seem as a consequence of adolescent financial irresponsibility, but from a deeper analysis, her testimony reveals its necessity due to familial displacement.

While Alexandria and Esmeralda focused on social and financial challenges, Ricky emphasized the damage that family separations causes to a child’s development. He suggested,

It’s making them grow a lot quicker than what they should, and they don’t fully experience their childhood or their teenage years. Even [for] me, I was 20. And in a way it’s still affecting me…[I] gotta focus on, kinda like, [being] the head of the household. I gotta think like “the man” and think about, “What am I going to get first? What do I need to pay first? What do I need to take care of?” You want to think about having fun but that goes away because then you have to think, “I have this stuff to take care of first.” 60

Ricky continued to say that this familial interruption impeded him from experiencing a normal transition from childhood to full adulthood since he was placed as the primary caregiver for his younger brother. Whether it was a planned change in life or not, all parents can agree that adopting the new role is laborious. But they have time to prepare and most importantly, a choice. Ricky, on the other hand, was given exponentially less time to prepare to become a caregiver.
ICE’s deportation of his parents robbed Ricky of his right to an emerging adulthood, and he was left with a minor of his own to raise.

Ricky focused on specific ways older siblings are often overwhelmed with adult responsibilities when forced to care for their younger siblings after their parents’ deportation. Esmeralda, too, shared a similar experience as the first-born child in the Villarreal family. After a long pause, and with built courage, she admitted,

For a long time, I was upset [with] my parents. I would tell them, “These are your children, not mine,” because I kind of felt like they wanted me to play that motherly role that I really didn’t know, that I wasn’t really aware of until, you know, now that I have my child. Now I understand what they were talking about…I knew that at one point they could have gotten their citizenship papers but because of that one mistake of saying, you know, “I am here to visit. I am not going to come back.” It just put me to think… [because of] one mistake like this…we wouldn’t have been in the situation that we are in now. I feel like it took me a long time to fully understand why they [took] that decision, because as a 17- year-old, ’til now—a 26-year-old—I feel like I’ve made several decisions where I feel hesitant about doing stuff…I think to that point I feel guilty now about being mad at them.61

When juxtaposing Ricky’s recollection of ICE suggesting that he become an agent himself with Esmeralda’s displaced anger against her parents for choosing not to pursue a secure status in America, it becomes evident that ICE deportations destabilize the physical and emotional unity of families. As mentioned before, Ricky and Sebastian’s experiences led them to feel responsible for their mothers’ deportations. This threw Sebastian and Ricky into years of emotional trauma rooted in guilt. Esmeralda, on the other hand, reacted to her parents’ deportation and its consequences on the entire family’s situation with anger and frustration, only to carry the guilt years later. In either family’s situation, the shared injustice relies on the fact that these deportations transcend beyond the moment they occur. No matter how much time passes, trauma affects these individuals in complicated ways. Esmeralda and Ricky classified their parents’ absence and their consequential role of caretakers for their younger siblings as something that stripped them of their free will, stifling them with responsibilities. But while the narratives of children of deported parents are striking in their similarities, these stories have variance to them, including mine.

When my parents were deported, they had moved to México with my two younger siblings, and I fell into a depression. I was pulled twice a week from my chemistry class to meet with a psychologist, the only form of outside support offered. The only method of seeing my family for months on end was through Skype; however, due to the consistently strong storms and lack of stable internet where my parents lived, I would face internet lags that would blur my family’s faces, interrupt our conversations, and cause frustration that would send me into an agonizing depression. This experience limited me to visualize this as the only future I would have with my family. A week would go by, and I would wallow in resentment and pain because I would become aware that I was missing out on seeing my younger siblings’ inevitable growth.

What released me from my depression was not consistent therapy, but the privilege my parents gave me in adopting my younger siblings. Perhaps because I felt completely alone during the first year after my parents’ deportation, I was able to appreciate the motivation that came with responsibility. Perhaps because Esmeralda and Ricky were left with no choice but to raise their younger siblings, they hold a unique memory. The consequences of separated families due to deportation are a multidimensional range of responses. Nonetheless, these responses, as different as they may be, echo the same cry for reunification that continues to be overshadowed by dominant narratives that suggest all “illegal immigrants” are criminals and, therefore, must be deported.62 For undocumented American families, it is indeed a restless, long night anxiously anticipating the dawn to shed the light of reunification.

Lo que no se pregunta no se dice | What goes unasked goes unshared

This nightmare, however, remains disconnected from the public memory even within vulnerable communities that face possibilities of deportation and separation. This silence is achieved through a common belief found amongst the Mexican American community: “lo que no se pregunta no se dice (what goes unasked goes unshared).” Although not explicitly mentioned verbatim, there is evidence that this saying ran through the minds of some of my interviewees. Amlo and Elizabeth, the eldest of my interviewees, demonstrated this attitude more than Esmeralda, Alexandria, and Ricky. On average Amlo and Elizabeth spent 17.55 minutes throughout their interviews providing a combined 68 sentences for the 11 questions I asked. On the other hand, my younger interviewees spent an average of 47 minutes to complete the interview providing a combined 268 sentences for the same 11 questions. This means that Esmeralda, Alexandria, and Ricky’s interview time increased by 267.81% and provided 394.30% more combined sentences compared to Amlo and Elizabeth. In addition, the parents were more reluctant to share more concrete details regarding how they felt emotionally about their deportation, opting instead to speak in a more detached, manner-of-fact way about what

 

 

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