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A Ground-Eye View of the 'Valley of Deportation'

What makes California’s Eastern Coachella Valley so unique is the desensitization to deportations.
 
 
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Jesús E. Valenzuela Félix is a blogger and reporter from Coachella, CA, currently living in Salinas and working for the United Farm Workers Foundation. His blog, "The Diary of Joaquín Magón” appears regularly on the youth-led community news website, Coachella Unincorporated, a project of New America Media.   Following is the first of a two-part reflection on immigration matters in the Eastern Coachella Valley, based on interviews with residents of this agricultural and predominantly Latino region of southeast Riverside County.

COACHELLA -- With 2012 now firmly in the rearview mirror, and on the eve of President Obama's unveiling of his national vision for immigration reform, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the official number of people deported from the United States last year: 409,849 individuals "removed" -- caught, trapped, nabbed, thrown into the paddy wagon and kicked out with a boot – a record high.

For residents of California’s Eastern Coachella Valley (ECV), the number comes as no surprise. In fact, it’s what makes the ECV so unique – the normalization of, and the desensitization to, deportations. Think about the word. Deported. It’s a horrible word and a horrible experience. While the Coachella Valley may conjure up fuzzy thoughts of a crazy concert or country clubs with golf courses and swimming pools, the Coachella Valley that I know is the Coachella Valley of Deportation.

Following are stories of everyday people living in the ECV who I am lucky to know and whose lives have been impacted in some form by deportation and our nation’s immigration policies.

Mario Lazcano: Witness to the Scars of a Community

When it comes to learning about immigration issues in the Eastern Coachella Valley, there is one person to see first: Mario Lazcano. Most know him as the guy who runs El Comité Latino (an activist organization) and who works out of his cramped home, helping people with their immigration issues for practically nothing. Lazcano believes the high number of deportations in the ECV is a result of immigration authorities taking advantage of the fact that there is no solid leadership, no one organization or politician, to defend the people.

“The Coachella Valley has been used as a testing ground,” explains Lazcano, “and that has caused us a lot of harm. That’s why talking about deportation and separated families is one of the most common things that we have experienced. Thank God that we haven’t gotten used to it.”

In writing about deportations in the ECV today, it is important to first recognize recent history. The federal Secure Communities program -- information sharing between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to streamline the removal of undocumented people -- began in 2008 under the Bush Administration. Continuing under the Obama Administration, the program contributed to a rise in deportations across the United States. But cities near the Mexican and Canadian border (ok, not so much the Canadian border) have had to deal with that rise for much longer.

There was a little known program called Operation Stone Garden (OSG) implemented in 2006, which provided grants for local law enforcement authorities to cooperate with border patrol agents. All of a sudden, after OSG began, we started hearing stories in the ECV of police calling ICE agents on people they had pulled over, police asking for documents, and pretending it was a coincidence that the ICE agent showed up minutes after they had just pulled someone over.

One man, as the story went, was forced to kneel on the side of the road outside of the Los Duros trailer park before getting the back of his head blown off by a law enforcement officer. In the community, that story internalized a fear of venturing outside. (The story could be true, partially true, or simply the result of a rampant paranoia that the deportations had already engendered in the community.)

Lazcano’s case files are filled with real individual stories that convey the sad realities behind the deportation numbers – like the mechanic that drove from Coachella to Desert Hot Springs to pick up a car. His wife joined him. The police stopped them. The police called the border patrol. They got sent to separate detention centers. Luckily, they were well informed and refused to sign for voluntary deportation. The wife, who had been sent to San Diego, was released. The husband was taken to Arizona and eventually released on bail. Throughout the ordeal, a family was left behind. Luckily, they had an older son that protected his younger siblings, including a daughter that couldn’t understand why her parents hadn’t come home.

In 2012, according to a statement by ICE Director John Morton, out of the 409,849 people deported “approximately 55 percent, or 225,390 …were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors – almost double the removal of criminals in FY (Fiscal Year) 2008.” But if only 55 percent of those deported were criminals, and if the Obama Administration ordered criminals to be ICE’s focus, then how to explain the remaining 45 percent?

To Lazcano, the numbers speak to a government’s broken promises. “[ICE] continues to hurt our families and harm our community. They are not following their own agreements that they wouldn’t deport us if we met certain criteria, such as having a family and not having any serious criminal offenses.”

Mayte: Waiting for Her Chance

Mayte (first name), 21, graduated from high school in 2009 and was accepted to UC Irvine, UC Merced, and UC Riverside but opted for College of the Desert, the local community college, because of cost. Now eligible to transfer to a four-year university, she fears she won’t be able to afford the tuition. That reality seeped from her hands onto paper when she sat down to write her personal statement for her UC application:

“My dream is simple: I want to have an opportunity to have a dream that could actually come true. My world, a world that is made of people who belong and people who are excluded, a world that divides human beings into two categories, legal and illegal, this world makes it difficult to really have a dream.”

Mayte is among the thousands who applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a federal order made by the Obama Administration last year that grants temporary legal status to certain qualified children of undocumented immigrants. In Mayte’s case, it was a chance to get legal status that would allow her to qualify for much needed financial aid. “The moment that President Obama announced DACA,” says Mayte, “I was watching the news…I started crying. I thought I wasn’t going to be able to go to the university and I didn’t want to stop there. It gave me a lot of hope.”

Mayte was born in Churumuco in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, and was brought to the Eastern Coachella Valley when she was 10 years old. Her mother is a farm worker whose story is much like other farm workers in California — exploitative conditions, long hours, cheated out of overtime pay, no voice in the workplace, and a realization that she will one day be replaced by someone younger and faster. To this, Mayte has responded by dreaming to become a lawyer that specializes in labor and employment law.

“I continue because of [my mother],” she says, “and that’s why I chose the career I chose, because I’ve seen how my mom has been treated in the fields and I truly want to change that.”

Mayte remembers little of Mexico. She didn’t even learn that she was undocumented until she went to apply for college.

“It was terrible,” says Mayte, “but my mom always said, ‘Don’t give up, you don’t want to end up like me, working for almost nothing, and then you know how they treat me -- I don’t want you to end up like this.’”

Like others in the ECV, Mayte carries a fear that at any given moment she or her mother could be deported – yes, even despite Obama’s promise not to do so. It is often difficult for people who are not surrounded by a perpetual threat of deportation to fully grasp the nature of that condition, just as it’s difficult for those who are surrounded by the threat of deportation to know that life should not be this way. There is a militarized feeling to life for residents of the ECV, due to the constant immigration raids, checkpoints and peace officers who cannot be trusted. For Mayte, it’s a familiar feeling.

“Families are separated because of the raids. My mom never gets home late. The latest she gets home is 7pm. After that, my heart just pounds so hard (because) I wonder where she’s at. And she doesn’t have a phone. I just stay awake, nervous. It’s terrible for families.”

On the university application, Mayte asks in her personal statement: “A young woman like me, born Mexican, female, and poor -- what kinds of dreams are available to her? A young woman like me is not looking for a handout, but rather, a chance to have a dream that could really come true.”

For now, Mayte can only wait for her DACA approval or denial, a process that could take a few more months.

To read more entries from "The Diary of Joaquin Magón," click here.