By Daniela Maria Ugaz / Upside Down World
I remember jolting awake at 6 AM. Still dark. Someone was banging on my neighbors’ door. I could hear whispering, then screaming. When I opened my eyes, just like that, I made out two, three, four distinct voices.
Months later, my neighbor, who I’ll call Beto, told me there must have been 10 to 12 police officers at his door that morning. They were definitely police and not Immigration. The squad car parked in front was stamped with the LAPD logo and the officers’ uniforms were neatly labeled POLICE. And yet this was an immigration raid. It had all the trappings of an immigration raid, from the hour it was conducted, to the defining fact that Beto, along with many other migrants in our LA neighborhood, were targeted that day for being in the country illegally. But we didn’t realize this until much later.
Beto didn’t even know he was being detained when he was escorted into a patrol car. The police lied to him, which sounds like a loaded word, but I don’t think “misinformed” would do here. They told him they needed his help in looking for a criminal suspect and that he would be returned home shortly. They even showed him a picture of the supposed suspect they were looking for. However, he never helped them look for a suspect that day and he wasn’t brought back home. Instead, he was taken straight to an immigration detention center.
Our one-bedroom bungalows were only a couple of yards apart, so I had no trouble hearing the cops knock on Beto’s door or scream loud enough to rouse his three sleeping children to tears. After a while, still locked out of Beto’s house, it seemed the cops sat down to relax and enjoy the dawning day. I heard them exchange inside jokes and talk about the weather. When Beto came outside some fifteen minutes later, I could hear him plainly too, stricken with fear. “Porque…” “Pero no…” “A donde?” He quieted down, and, I remember this distinctly in my early morning stupor, that I thought that because the officers seemed to be chitchatting and even laughing, even after my neighbor had come outside, that it could all be some sort of joke. I fell asleep again.
Later that day, Beto’s wife, who I’ll call Alicia, was outside with her mother, grinding corn for the tortillas they’d sell at their taco stand that night. They told me they thought Beto had been arrested, though they couldn’t be sure. They didn’t know exactly where he’d been taken or for how long.
I asked Alicia if she knew of any reason he might be arrested. Had he gotten himself into trouble?
The cops came with a picture of a man, she told me. They claimed they knew the man was in the house, but then changed course, saying that in fact they knew the man wasn’t there, but that they could still use Beto’s help. Could he come for a drive with them? And though their words had the intonation of a question, this was definitely a demand. Her husband was handcuffed and escorted to one of the five squad cars, and he was further assured that he was not being arrested, that the restrains were only a precaution while he helped them look for their suspect.
Only one of the dozen officers had spoken Spanish and he’d told Alicia to fetch Beto a jacket, that it would be cold where he was going, and money too, if she wanted him to be able to call her later on. Sure sounded like jail time, but it seemed Alicia wasn’t ready to believe this.
The next day, Beto called from Tijuana. He explained to his wife that after he’d been handcuffed the police had driven him around to several other houses in the neighborhood where they went through the same motions: banging on doors with the picture of the supposed suspect in hand, screaming that they knew the suspect was in the house, coaxing people out their doors and into their squad cars. That night Beto and the others arrested were held at Otay Detention Facility in San Diego. And the next morning Beto was given voluntary deportation papers which he signed, meaning he wouldn’t be charged with illegal entry or any other immigration related crime on the condition that he be removed from the country immediately. He apologized for not calling sooner but he’d had no money and was lucky enough that someone in Tijuana had let him use their phone. Never did he see those fifty dollars Alicia had given the officer. And it gets worse. He’d given the same cop, the only one who spoke Spanish, $1,300 to give to Alicia. Beto had had the wad of money in his pants pocket ready to go toward their monthly taco-stand payment, due that day. The officer found it on a pat-down and told Beto to hand it over to him to give to his wife. Except that Alicia only got $500 of it, the remaining presumably pocketed by the policeman.
Here is where I need to pause, and ask, is this common practice? Is this what an immigration raid looks like in 2013? And if so, what are we headed towards, what does it say about 2014? I don’t mean the part about the stolen money, as so many reports from migrants rights organizations to media outlets ranging from PBS, CNN and the Oprah Winfrey Magazine have documented officers taking detainees’ personal belongings. I don’t mean the unfortunate fact that the police raided at dawn (an hour commonly chosen for drug or gang raids), when Beto’s children were home, in their last leg of sleep, only to be frightened awake by the loud banging on the door. Nor the fact that they came with an overwhelming amount of back-up and the screaming and flashing guns fit for a murder suspect. Such abuses have become common place, spreading with an air of hysteria through our immigration enforcement system, and thanks to the hard work of journalists and migrant rights activists they are actually well documented if we only chose to look:
- From The Guardian: “Zavala, who was waiting in his car when the violent raid began, found himself dragged outside his vehicle, cuffed and laid out on the ground. ‘They came very aggressively, with their guns pointed. They threw me on the floor. They put their foot on my back. It was very terrifying.”
- From CNN: “Former detainees of Immigration and Customs Enforcement accuse the agency in a lawsuit of forcibly injecting them with psychotropic drugs while trying to shuttle them out of the country during their deportation.”
- From Fox News: “Prosecutors said in a pretrial court filing that Fonseca kneed the migrant, Adolfo Ceja, in the thigh and ordered him to the ground. They said the video shows Fonseca’s hand on Ceja’s throat even as the migrant has his hands on the wall. Ceja turns limp and collapses to the floor ‘with seizure-like movements.'” (the Border Patrol agent was later acquitted. Tough soon after a judge ordered the US Attorney’s Office to release the surveillance camera footage in response to growing protests against the court ruling.)
- From The Oprah Winfrey Magazine: “Personal belongings were confiscated and kept, including shoes, medication, lists of phone numbers, birth certificates, and money.”
- From The Examiner: “Unauthorized medical tests [are] being conducted on ICE detainees, including the taking of DNA samples without a court order.”
These quotes are but a glimpse into the cascading evidence of the inhumanity of US immigration enforcement. They help uncover the culture of cruelty behind our immigration laws, which migrant rights organizations like No More Deaths have recorded in tens of thousands of accounts. So while I can’t believe my eyes and ask if this is common practice, I’m referring to two things only: the trickery involving the stock photograph of a supposed suspect, and the fact that it was police, not immigration conducting the raid.
There’s a deceiving sweetness to this type of immigration enforcement. To the households involved, the raid was terrifying, but the hour of the day and its door-to-door nature ensured that it would remain largely invisible to the rest of the community; I found no media coverage of the raid. And even for the migrants apprehended, the fact that it was police and not immigration and the extra little kick of the lie was enough to delay panic. Beto later told me that he wouldn’t have opened his door had he seen immigration officers as oppose to police. And Alicia didn’t panic until she got Beto’s phone call from Tijuana. But most importantly, this raid unveils a far greater collaboration between police and immigration enforcement than most people realize exists, and that’s even with the passing of Secure Communities, the federal program that automatically sends the fingerprints of anyone arrested to be cleared with the Department of Homeland Security.
Does this raid serve as a window into the next chapter of our country’s immigration enforcement?
For all practical purposes, Alicia had become a single mother of three, with a fourth shortly on its way. She used to stay home with the children while Beto worked, now she took over the taco stand and cooked all day long with her mother, and then worked until midnight, selling what she had cooked. She was lucky enough to have an incredible neighbor, who, six evenings a week, took care of Alicia’s kids, along with her own four children. A few weeks down the road, my boyfriend and I took care of the eldest son some nights until 10:00 PM when his young uncle would rush home from work to pick him up. But for long stretches after school, the children were largely left to their own. This can pose a definite problem in the city-scape of Los Angeles, where they were surrounded by rushing cars and minor gang activity. Alicia could keep a distant eye on them, but she was tied to her work in the kitchen, and the kids–4, 5 and 9-years-old–ran in and out of the house with the energy of the rug-rats they were. There’s no way she could’ve afforded a babysitter. And now she had to think about raising the $7,000 to $12,000 it would take to pay for Beto’s coyote. There was never a doubt in their mind that they should stay in the US and somehow get Beto back.
Some days I could hear the little girl, the youngest, crying for her father. Mi papito, she would sob. No tengo papito. I could see her through my bedroom window, rocking herself back and forth. The eldest, meanwhile, became aggressive. He told me multiple times that he fantasized about joining a gang. What, I don’t care!, he’d insist. Alicia was very honest with the kids. She told them that their father had been deported, that he was now in Mexico. Feeling abandoned and insecure, the oldest boy’s concentration at school was null. His grades plummeted. I hate myself, he scrawled on his homework. Luckily this got his teacher’s attention, and she suggested therapy for him. It’s been six months since Beto has come back, and his little boy is still going to therapy now.
These are the facts. This is what the family suffered, only paired down, with almost all but the faintest remnants of their trauma left out. It should come as no surprise that children respond frantically and violently when a parent is taken from them. Likewise, most adult migrants I’ve talked with use a desperate language to describe their deportations. They describe the anxiety they felt to reunite with their children and spouses, their guilt in not being able to provide for them while they were detained, some have described to me having to live on the streets after they were deported without a cent. And yet our immigration enforcement laws either implicitly deny the traumas they are causing, or, just as noxious, accept these traumas as necessary effects.
Let’s consider the following two laws:
The term “extreme hardship” was introduced with the 1996 Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. It states that if an undocumented migrant successfully proves that their child, parent or spouse would suffer “extreme hardship” with their removal from the country then their deportation may be waived. The family member must be a US citizen or lawful permanent resident alien for the undocumented migrant to qualify. A parent proving, for example, that their autistic undocumented child would lack proper medical attention and social services back in their country of origin, does nothing for their case. But let us put aside the ethical ramifications of recognizing only the “extreme hardship” of our own. The ruse is this, extreme hardship deportation waivers pretend to take into account factors such as: the health condition of the alien or the alien’s dependent, the impact of a disruption of educational opportunities, and the psychological impact of the alien’s deportation on their dependent. But it’s well known that all of the most common traumas linked to deportation–family separation, subsequent homelessness and extreme poverty, severe depression and attachment disorders–do not qualify a migrant for these waivers. The implication here is that these traumas, these “psychological impacts” to use the law’s own language, are part and parcel of our immigration enforcement system, and necessary to the security of our borders. Put another way, the implication here is that people–migrants–must suffer so much more than they currently are for us to admit that something is seriously wrong here, that we are responsible for violations of basic human rights.
Likewise, the HELP Separated Children Act passed in 2011, is meant “to provide protection for children affected by the immigration laws of the United States.” And yet this Act assumes that undocumented parents and primary caregivers will and must be detained, instead of being let out on bail. The law specifies that detained children, single parents of children who are ill, and pregnant or nursing women may qualify for release. But it says nothing of parents at large, as if it weren’t such painfully common sense that both parents can be necessary pillars in a child’s development.
We have come to accept that enforcing our laws requires traumatizing those who break the law. We are acting as though we believe in an eye for an eye, or worse, in Beto’s case it’s a civil infraction for an eye. Our society ought not to believe in this philosophy and we must change our laws to reflect that or risk changing ourselves for the worse. As an inspiration, we can remind ourselves that it hasn’t always been this way. Remember when we weren’t deporting 400,000 people a year? Remember when we didn’t have privately run detention centers, making so much money a year per detainee? Remember when our border wasn’t militarized?
Remember, we are not only traumatizing those who break the law, but also their children, but also their spouses, even their neighbors.
Daniela Maria Ugaz is a Fulbright Fellow researching and writing about immigration. She co-translated the book of chronicles, The Beast, which documents Central American migration through Mexico in a time of cartel warfaring. If you know anything about the immigration enforcement tactics described above, please contact her at danielamaria56(at)gmail.com.