Life in Exile: What Happened When My Uncle Was 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.
“I failed the piss test,” he says. “They found drugs in my urine and they sent me back to prison for six months.” After being released, he was sent back to prison for the third and final time when he was caught in a car with a gun. He received a 32-month-sentence for possession of a firearm. Joseph served two years of that sentence until he was transferred to a detention facility due to his immigration status.
“The conviction he suffered renders him deportable,” says to Carl Balediata, an immigrant attorney based in San Diego, California. “Immigration and the police work together but sometimes they are not as connected as they should be and unfortunately, people like your uncle fall through the cracks eventually by continuously getting into trouble.” Balediata adds that mass deportations come in waves depending on who the president is at the given time.
In Writing Immigration, Scholars and Journalists in Dialogue, journalist Nina Bernstein noted, “These Clinton administration laws, which mostly took effect in 1998, sharply curtailed defenses against deportation, severely narrowed judicial review that would allow consideration of individual circumstances, and raised civil and criminal penalties for immigration law violations.”
Uncle Joe easily admits that he has made mistakes in his life. “I got deported because I committed a crime, a serious violent felony,” he says, and recalls his time in the detention facility during his last few months in the U.S. He says he was surrounded by all types of people from places like Cuba and Vietnam, people who had been there for several years and were still holding onto a sliver of hope, and awaiting a new trial in court. He says he felt defeated and decided to sign the paperwork for voluntary deportation.
“You don’t have due process and they tell you something in court that you don’t understand,” he says. “I still don’t understand the legal system. I looked at all those guys and I didn’t want to be locked up anymore... You just rot there.”
Balediata says assault with a deadly weapon is deportable under federal law. In certain instances, a deportee can apply for cancellation of removal, which is immigration relief made available to individuals who exhibit good moral character or have parents or children who are U.S. citizens. In my uncle’s case, however, the crime he committed prevents him from applying.
“If his crime is punishable for over one year and he was convicted of an aggravated felony, then he falls under what we call the case of death in immigration law,” Balediata says, which basically translates into a deportation case that cannot be fought or won. “Unfortunately in your uncle’s case, the law worked in the way it is supposed to,” he says.
Although he understands the reasons that led him to deportation, Uncle Joe expresses his frustration in the same breath when it comes to deportees who have not committed an aggravated felony or a violent crime. According Balediata, deportable offenses in the U.S. under federal immigration law include misrepresentation, an aggravated felony, drug trafficking, and perjury. However, he says that the U.S. has experienced the most deportations ever under the Obama administration, with over a million deportations within a two-year span.
“I would say that out of over a million deportations, twenty to thirty percent of those deportees were not a threat or had not committed any crimes,” he says. Uncle Joe says many of the deportees he has met in the Philippines are there for things as minor as driving or traffic violations, like a DUI, for example.
“Though the Obama administration maintains that it wants to concentrate immigration enforcement on serious criminal offenders, it has embraced programs that are feeding record numbers of noncriminals, misdemeanants, and traffic offenders into detention and prosecuting record numbers of immigration-related offenses as federal crimes,” noted Bernstein.
Where is home?
“It’s a long-term heartache,” Uncle Joe says, describing his permanent separation from his family, specifically his daughter. I sense the grief, the longing, and the sense of loss in his voice. He wishes he’d focused on school instead gang banging and how he wishes he’d stayed out of prison, he tells me.
“I wish I would have went to college like you did,” Uncle Joe says. “I made my wrong decisions.”
He wishes he could hug his daughter and his mother again, he says, and I just listen in silence.
“I can’t wrap my head around it, I’m still in denial,” he says. “My daughter is estranged. She [doesn’t] know me. We love each other but we don’t really know each other.”
What can I say to console him? My daughter is sleeping in my lap and he is asking me questions about his own daughter, who is now a stranger. I want to cry in that moment, but true to character, Uncle Joe just tells me another joke. His laughter rings out loud but in it I can hear his yearning for home.
For Uncle Joe, a deportee, someone raised thoroughly American, but who is now an exile in his homeland, home has become a complicated concept. He's still having a difficult time adjusting as a deportee and wrapping his mind around the reality that he won't be coming back to the U.S. He has no sense of home.
“When he lived with Auntie Linda, your grandma’s sister, and she told us that she sometimes heard him crying in his room in the middle of the night,” my mother tells me. “Joe had a harder time than Adrian.”
On the phone, I ask him if he is doing OK.
“How do you define OK?” he asks. I fall silent. I’m not sure how to define it.
“Does OK mean breathing? Melissa, I’m still adjusting. Whatever I do, I can’t be happy. I feel like I’m still on vacation, but I’m here permanently.”
I do not probe any further. I just listen.