Fighting to Stay: Inside one Mother's Fight to Keep her Family United and Safe in the United States
Last month, Carla Garcia and I sat in the middle of a conference room of the Mexican Federation community center in Salt Lake City, Utah. Garcia, whose name has been changed to protect her immigration status, was cutting out a stencil in the shape of a monarch butterfly surrounded by the words “migration is natural.”
“I want to see these on every sidewalk,” she said, smiling as she looked up. “Wouldn’t that be so beautiful?”
By seven o’clock, more women filtered into the conference room for a meeting of the Salt Lake Dream Team, an organization that was created to pressure Congress to pass the Dream Act after Senator Orrin Hatch presented it in 2001. Since the legislation’s introduction, the Dream Act has gone to the Senate floor multiple times, although never with enough votes to pass. Ironically in 2007, the year it came closest to passing, Hatch missed the vote in order to attend his grandson’s graduation. With many Dreamers increasingly disillusioned about politics and legislation, the Salt Lake Dream Team transformed into a group of mostly undocumented women focusing on stopping deportations on their own.
Garcia finished her stencil as Ana Canenguez arrived. A mother originally from El Salvador, she’s currently the focus of the Dream Team’s campaign to force ICE to use prosecutorial discretion to keep families together in the United States. The plan is to demand lawmakers present a private bill to grant the family legal residency — a last-resort step that comes only after all other forms of relief have been exhausted. This reality is true for the Canenguez family, who has applied for every immigration solution, including Deferred Action and asylum. All of her applications were denied.
Rebecca Hall, a retired law professor at University of Utah, explained the ideological challenge migrants face when applying for legal residency.
“The U.S-legal system cannot contemplate the fact that there is worldwide economic injustice that we have created through our neoliberal system,” she said. “And that’s why people need to leave (their countries of origin) … The legal system doesn’t even think that way. That’s not even considered a truth.”
As the meeting began, the woman began to outline the plan.
“Senator Hatch is our main target, “ said Angie Rodriguez, another member of the Salt Lake Dream Team. To win a private bill for the Canenguez family, the group must persuade a member of Congress to present it on the floor. He’s the only representative in Utah with an even mildly pro-immigration platform, and he’s known for having a soft spot for families.
“We are first asking the ‘proper way,’ setting up meetings and such,” Rodriguez continued. “But knowing politicians, it will take a little persuading before any decisions are made,” she added, as the rest of the group giggled.
According to Rodriguez, a person’s immigration status can be changed instantly, a success they’ve already experienced in previous cases. Take, for example, the deportation case of the Avelar sisters.
“Our targets were Hatch and the field officer from ICE in our region,” Rodriguez recalled.
After a large press conference in downtown Salt Lake City, the sisters received a phone call from their lawyer saying that their case had been dropped.
“Apparently ICE received a call from the Attorney General of Utah telling them to use prosecutorial discretion to drop the deportation case,” Rodriguez said. “Just like that their deportation case was dropped.”
It’s hard to leave your children
When President Obama took office in 2008, the Department of Homeland Security publicly began prioritizing the deportation of immigrants with criminal records — even as it began rapidly accelerating the rate of deportations overall. In August 2010, the same administration issued a detailed policy telling ICE agents to try to avoid deporting parents of children under the age of 18. But even with these two policies enacted to place “focus on sensible immigration” — as Obama frequently declares in speeches — many who don’t fit this description still end up trapped in the system.
Canenguez, who first came to the United States in 2003, is a clear example of this oversight.
“It’s very hard to leave your children,” she explained during the meeting. “But you know what’s worse? You get up, your children say they are hungry, and you don’t have anything to give them to eat.”
Eight years after Canenguez first moved to New York City in order to earn money to send back to her family, two of her sons, Job and Geovanny, were becoming young men in El Salvador. At 13 and 15 years old, they found the pressures of joining a gang slowly consuming their lives and the constant harassment distracting them from their studies. Canenguez, by then living in Utah, had just enough money to hire a coyote to bring them into the United States. They were caught walking through the arid Arizona desert. After being detained for weeks, the two teenagers were released. They joined their mother in Utah but were placed immediately in deportation proceedings.
Even with her two sons scheduled to be deported back to El Salvador, Canenguez took comfort in being reunited with them. She fell in love, got married and gave birth to two U.S.-born children, now 6 and 7.Andalthough she had two more young sons in El Salvador, she believed it would be a couple of more safe years until the gangs found them suitable for recruitment. Unfortunately, those years came sooner than expected.
Canenguez had been gone from her village for nine years when she received a call from one of the gangs. The message was clear: They would kill her sons unless she wired $25,000. Instead, Canenguez decided to raise the money to hire a coyote and bring them to the United States. Mario and Erick, who at the time were 12 and 10 years old, were caught at the border and placed in a Mexican orphanage, spurring Canenguez to cross into Mexico to begin what would become a long battle to get her children back.
Two months later they were released into her custody. She hired yet another coyote to help them cross back into the United States. After walking through the desert for miles, Canenguez realized she was running low on food and water. Fearing death, they decided to turn themselves in. After being detained for week, the three were finally allowed into Utah. Facing the same fate as her other two sons, Canenguez, Mario and Erick found themselves in removal proceedings.
“Before I had the help (of the Salt Lake Dream Team), one lawyer told me to go into hiding,” explained Canenguez. “That was my only option. And for one moment I was seriously thinking about it. My family and I would change states, and we would live in fear until the police caught us. Hiding like criminals.”
I was detained once
Within the year, the Obama administration will have deported a record two million people since 2008. Even as immigration reform once again becomes a White House priority, thousands of people are deported daily. This stalling by politicians has sparked widespread actions, from the “March for Dignity and Respect” that took place in more than 100 cities earlier this fall to the ICE shutdowns occurring across the country.
“It’s obvious the immigration system is broken,” Garcia said, as we road our bikes back from the meeting, stencils in hand. “Ana’s case has received a lot of media attention. Hopefully that will show people who would usually be complacent that they can speak up with their community behind them.”
I remembered what Canenguez had said during the meeting about reform for the other 11 million undocumented migrants in the United States. “We need to lose fear of speaking out … It would be beautiful if the 11 million lost fear. Everything would look different. The more people that lose fear, the more power we have. In unity there is power.”
As we talked, Garcia stopped in a dimly lit area.
“You know, I was once detained,” she said quietly, looking over her shoulder before pulling the can out of her bag. “There were women in there from Poland, Mexico, two from Africa and a few from Brazil,” she continued while spray-painting her monarch butterfly on the sidewalk.
“I remember one day I French-braided my hair. One woman warned me to take it out; she said that the guards would think someone did it for me. But at the same time, she was really excited I knew how to do it. She asked me to braid her hair later, since it had been a while since someone has come through that knew how to,” she said.
She explained how they set up a lookout system and hid in the corner farthest from the guards. “I quickly made two braids and we used loose elastics from our socks as a hair tie,” she said. The no-braids rule was strictly enforced to stop romantic relationships, Garcia explained. But it was also to ensure there was no bonding, of any sort, between the detainees.
She stood up to admire the freshly painted butterfly and smiled. “First it’s braids,” she said. “Then it’s revolt.”