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Life in Exile: What Happened When My Uncle Was Deported

My uncle came to America when he was 5 years old. Now, he lives in the Philippines after being deported.

 My palms feel sweaty as I hold the phone in my left hand, feeling anxious to dial the phone number my grandmother has just given me. “Why am I so nervous?” I think to myself. I am awaiting the voice on the other end of the line, a voice I have not heard in over ten years.

I am awaiting the voice of my uncle, Joseph Cruz, 38, who was deported from the United States to the Philippines in 2002. He is one of two uncles who have been deported; my other uncle is Joseph’s brother, Adrian Cruz, 39.

“Hello? Hello? Melis?” Uncle Joe says. I inhale deeply before greeting him back. “Hello,” I say shyly. “Girl! How are you?” he exclaims happily. Before I can think of what to say, the words stumble awkwardly out of my mouth: “Um, I have a daughter now!”

He laughs loudly. “How did that happen?”

I laugh and I feel at ease. He is the same Uncle Joe I have known since I was a little girl. Since he was deported he worked at a call center Manila. He recently moved to Davao.

Adrian and Joseph were born in the Philippines in 1972 and 1973, respectively, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1978, a year after their father’s petition was approved. Their father is my grandfather, Nicanor Cruz, 72. He came to the United States alone but traveled back to the Philippines to bring his wife Lolita Cruz, my grandmother. They traveled again that year to pick up their sons, the three youngest boys. My mother, Marivic Reyes, 50, is their eldest sister and one of the last people in the family to arrive in the United States in 1980.

My mother was 18 years old when she arrived, so she was able to apply for American citizenship on her own. My mother’s three youngest brothers were not immediately granted citizenship as children, however, because only my grandfather was a citizen at the time of their arrival and immediate citizenship for immigrant children could only occur if both parents were U.S. citizens at the time of their arrival. My uncles Joseph and Adrian were legal U.S. residents because they held green cards.

Like me, my uncles were raised in the southern part of San Diego, practically minutes away from the U.S.-Mexico border. The brothers became heavily involved in gang activity by their teens. Joseph went to prison at the age of 17, the same year that he became a father, a title he still clings to proudly despite the distant and strained relationship between him and his daughter who now lives in Texas.

A Costly Mistake

“At 17, I shot somebody by accident but I signed a plea bargain and basically confessed to it,” Joseph says. “Instead of attempted murder, they changed my charge to assault with a firearm. I had an eight-year sentence but I did half of it, about four years and two months.”

While he tells me this story over the phone, fragmented memories of picking him up outside of the prison with our family come back to me. I was six years old and his daughter (and my cousin) Janelle was four years old. I have not seen her in years but I remember her long black hair, her crooked bangs, and her smile. But most of all, in this pile of fragmented memories, I remember his smile and the utter joy in his eyes after being reunited with his daughter since the time of her birth. Unfortunately, his freedom was short-lived and Uncle Joe was sent back to prison for violating parole.

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