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Broken immigration system breaks hearts

Sr. Alicia and Josefina (Piña) accompany the women at Nazareth House. Here is a suggested caption. The Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist accompany the women at Nazareth House as they determine their immediate futures after deportation from the United States. (J.T. Tanner S.J. – Kino Border Initiative)
Wednesday, January 28, 2015

(Nogales, Mexico) January 28, 2015 — "It was the perfect life." This simple declarative sentence is arguably the most heartbreaking statement I have heard in nearly five years with Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.

How would you define a perfect life? For Gabriela[1] it was simple. She lived in Indiana with her husband and three kids. The two held jobs. She worked as a dishwasher and housekeeper. Gabriela expressed gratitude towards her employers who treated her well, raised her wage by 25 cents a year, and offered her one week’s vacation. After crossing the border 17 years ago she achieved much in the United States. 

Last September police pulled over Gabriela and arrested her for driving without a license.[2] This event began her descent into the inhumane U.S. immigration system. The local police turned her over to the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Once in a detention facility emptiness grew inside Gabriela because of the separation from her children; soon she thought about suicide.

After three weeks ICE deported Gabriela to Mexico. Her only personal belongings were her wedding ring and cell phone. Back in a country she left nearly two decades earlier, Gabriela had no money and no place to go. Her husband quickly wired money and Gabriela was able to return to her mother’s home.

After a brief stay Gabriela came back to the border intent on returning to the United States.

Like any mother, Gabriela cannot bear the separation from her children. Her oldest daughter understands the situation, but the two younger children cannot comprehend their mother’s long absence. One of the young children keeps a tally in her notebook of how many days Gabriela has been gone. Gabriela fears she will never see her kids again and that the youngest kids will think she has abandoned them. She and her husband agree that reuniting the family in Mexico is not an option. The three children are all American citizens who have never known Mexico.

Since her initial deportation and separation from her family, Gabriela has tried to re-enter the United States three times. Each time she has failed, and U.S. Border Patrol detained her after the second attempt. Now Gabriela is at an impasse. Her mother’s instinct compels her to attempt another crossing into the United States, but the reality of the dangers — both physical and legal — make her doubt the wisdom of another trip. 

I met Gabriela last week while visiting the Kino Border Initiative (KBI) in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. KBI is a refuge for recently deported Mexicans and migrants in-transit who are extremely vulnerable to exploitation by police, organized criminal gangs and petty criminals. One element of KBI’s direct service is Nazareth House, a women’s shelter that can accommodate up to eight people. Unaccompanied women and their children reside at the shelter for one week.

Nazareth House creates a home for the women living there. The women are accompanied by Sr. Cecilia and Piña who provide them opportunities for prayer, classes in artwork, workshops of human rights and self-esteem, and occupational therapy activities.

About a month ago, one of the women at Nazareth House had the idea to start making bracelets. It quickly blossomed into a cooperative that sells bracelets ($3 and $2) and rosaries ($10) to visitors. The profit from the enterprise is shared by the women, and when one leaves she receives her share. Overall, Nazareth House creates a safe space in which the women re-adjust after the confusion of deportation and decide the next step in their lives. 

Unfortunately, Gabriela’s experience is not unique among the women at Nazareth House. Rosa had a similar story. Rosa lived in Arizona for more than 10 years. She returned to Toluca for her mother’s funeral in November, but then could not re-enter the United States. U.S. immigration authorities detained Rosa for one month after one unsuccessful attempt at crossing the border. During her time in detention Rosa says she was treated poorly and yelled at constantly by security guards at the facility. Now she is stuck in Nogales while her five children remain in the United States. The only connection she has to them are heart wrenching phone calls.  

Teresa used to live in Utah with her husband and three daughters. In 2011, she went back to Puebla to visit her elderly parents. She has never returned home to Utah. In the three years without her children Teresa lived for a year in Nogales, but she has spent most of her time in immigration detention. After one unsuccessful crossing into the United States, ICE detained Teresa in a facility in Florence, Ariz., before transferring her to another in Eloy, Ariz.

While in detention Teresa witnessed sub-standard medical care: detainees not receiving prompt care and non-existent treatment for mental health. When a lawyer from a local NGO agreed to represent Teresa, she had high hopes of release. However, ICE deported Teresa. She claims the deportation happened while her lawyer was appealing her case.

By now all three of these women have left Nazareth House. Each has made her own difficult choice: return to a former home in Mexico, re-enter the United States, or reside in Nogales. I ask you to keep these three women and thousands of migrants just like them in your prayers. They have survived so many traumas; yet no end appears in sight. Uncaring and unjust social structures — U.S. immigration law and the policies that enforce it — prevent them from living with their families and building fulfilling lives.

By Sean Kelly
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

Learn more: Migration to and Asylum in the United States

[1] Names of migrants changed to protect confidentiality and security

[2] Indiana does not offer driver's licenses without regard for immigration status. Only 10 states and the District of Columbia have such policies: