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Separation Anxiety: How Deportation Divides Immigrant Families

Unauthorized immigrants live in fear that a husband or wife will be deported and then blocked from legal reentry, even if there are children living in the United States

Clemente Pacaja
Clemente Pacaja with his 13-year-old daughter Keyle in their Trenton home. His wife, Keyle's mother, has been deported to Guatemala.

Clemente Pacaja is a naturalized citizen. He is married, but has been forced to act as a single father, raising his teenage daughter by himself because his wife has been caught in the web of bureaucracy that is the American immigration system. It is a story that is becoming all too familiar for many immigrant families and is sure to become the norm if President-elect Donald Trump follows through on his campaign pledges.

Pacaja, who lives in Trenton with his 13-year-old daughter Keyle, works two jobs. He wakes at 5:00, gets breakfast ready for his daughter, goes to work on a cleaning crew at Quakerbridge Mall in Lawrence, stops home to prepare lunch for Keyle, and then heads to his full-time job as a cook at the Trenton Country Club.

His wife Zonia Ruiz Perez is in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. Zonia entered the United States illegally during the late 1990s, fleeing the violence in her home country. She returned to Guatemala earlier this year as the first step toward legalizing her immigration status.

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U.S. immigration law requires the undocumented, regardless of marital status, to return to their home countries to apply for an adjustment of status and green card, but bars most from returning for at least three years — 10 years if the immigrant had been in the United States for more than a year. Immigrants can appeal for a waiver of these “time bars” if they can demonstrate family hardship. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says that it received 38,274 applications for waivers during the first three quarters of the fiscal year (October 2015-June 2016) and approved 21,590 applications. There are 27,317 applications still pending.

Zonia Perez was granted hardship status because she suffers from a seizure disorder that is aggravated by stress. Being forced to live in Guatemala, which has been designated by the U.S. State Department as one of the world’s most dangerous nations, exacerbates her condition and limits access to needed medications.

Her application for legal entry into the United States was denied, however, because the American Embassy in Guatemala determined that she helped her half-brother enter the United States illegally by providing money, which she denies. The money in question was sent to her stepparents in Mexico to take care of her children from an earlier marriage, she says, adding that she should be allowed to return to her family in Trenton.

Immigration advocates say that American diplomatic personnel responsible for reviewing applications like Zonia’s have been overly aggressive in seeking reasons to deny green-card petitions for those seeking reentry. They say it is part of a broader focus on enforcement and deportation, noting that immigrants who attempt to regularize their status by following the rules and returning to their home country sometimes find themselves unable to return.

Johanna Calle, program coordinator for the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, a coalition of about two-dozen organizations, says that breaking up families has been a real problem in the immigrant community and can be addressed if the federal government were to provide real options for immigrants who want to come to the United States and stay here legally. The effect of current law is to punish those who are trying to make a life for themselves, she says.

“We have a legal system that is broken,” Calle says. “When folks talk about enforcement first, that really is just delaying the process, not fixing the process. There is no way to come legally — the law is very limited.”

Plus, coming legally is costly. A petition for a family member costs close to $2,000, plus thousands in legal fees, Calle says. That does not take into account the wages lost because of forfeited work hours or the reality that most immigrants here without authorization will be sent to their home countries before even being interviewed by federal authorities.

That’s what happened to Zonia Ruiz Perez. Pacaja says he has spent $30,000 so far and still has no resolution.

Calle says family separation and deportation are directly linked.

“Some of the folks being deported are just not threats to public safety,” she says. “They are not planning terrorist attacks. The federal government is sitting and doing nothing as innocent people are being deported.”

After a decade of partisan gridlock in Washington on the immigration issue, President Barack Obama signed two executive orders that created temporary protections for so-called childhood arrivals and their families, but also expanded enforcement efforts.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was created by a 2012 order and allowed immigrants between the ages of 16 and 30 who entered the United States before their 16th birthday to apply for work authorization and a two-year delay of potential deportation by the federal Department of Homeland Security. The 2014 order, called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents and known as DAPA, would have allowed immigrants who were in the United States continuously since January 1, 2010, and are the parent of a child who is a citizen or “lawful permanent resident” to petition to avoid deportation and potentially be granted legal work status for three years.

The 2014 program was never enacted, because a federal court in Texas ruled it an unconstitutional overreach by the executive branch.

Trump ran on a hard-line immigration platform, promising to reverse Obama’s immigration orders and immediately deport criminal aliens. He estimates that 3 million of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States would be deported under his plans, though immigration authorities have placed the number of undocumented immigrants who have criminal histories at well under a million.

According to an analysis by the Migration Policy and Urban institutes in Washington, D.C., about 53,000 unauthorized immigrants in New Jersey were eligible under the original DACA program. Another 12,000 would have been eligible under the expanded DACA called for in the 2014 executive order, and 133,000 would have been eligible for DAPA. There are about 498,000 undocumented immigrants in the state, which is the fourth-highest total in the nation.

The New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief in March asking the U.S. Supreme Court to lift the injunction and let DAPA stand. The brief says DAPA will allow families to “be more secure, without the looming threat that loved ones will be deported at a moment’s notice” and give immigrants “access to better jobs and the ability to improve their lives, the lives of their families, and their communities.”

DAPA and DACA are important, Calle says, but limited solutions. They will help in the short term, but something more broad-based needs to be done for immigrants – including eliminating the time-bars.

“We have all of these policies in place that make it difficult for people to adjust their status,” she says. “If you are not married to a U.S. citizen or are not related in a direct way, there is no way to adjust your status.”

The time-bar, she says, “limits it more” and ultimately is “holding people hostage in the country without getting legal status.” Immigrants know that they will not be able to return to the United States if they return to their native countries, so they stay here and remain in the shadows, she says.

DAPA and DACA are supposed to help address this — and they will help some – but they “are not permanent.” Immigrants' status will remain “up in the air.”

“It is a temporary (thing) that allows them to get a license, to work, but it is not permanent status,” she says.

The current system damages mixed immigrant families because it leaves some members — usually a parent — vulnerable to deportation. Spouses and children who either have legal status or citizenship, are then left behind.

Clemente Pacaja serves as both parents, though his daughter Keyle acts as “the woman of the house,” her father says. She does the cleaning and tends to her mother’s vegetable garden in their small backyard. She is finishing seventh grade at Grace Middle School and will move to Trenton High School West in the fall. She talks to her mother daily on the phone and via Skype, but “it’s not the same.”

During these conversations they discuss the same things they would if Zonia were in the United States — “how’s your day, how’s your grades, what are you doing all day” — but the phone calls cannot bridge the distance, Keyle says.

“She wanted to see me graduate seventh grade but she won’t be there,” Keyle says. “It’s stuff like that. I really want her to be there in those moments.”

“I’ve been depressed lately,” she says. “I really miss my mom.”

Jeannette Kouame misses her husband — and her two American children miss their father. Her husband, Njuessan, was deported to the Ivory Coast about nine years ago, after he had been in the United States for some 14 years.

The Kouames were married in 1990 in the Ivory Coast. Njuessan immigrated to Newark in 1993. Jeannette followed about five years later. They had two children — a daughter in 2000 and a boy in 2006, both of whom are U.S citizens — and had hoped to stay and become permanent residents, possibly citizens. Kouame attempted to regularize his status and filed for asylum, which was denied in 2000. A deportation order was issued and he was detained in 2006. He was deported a year later.

“We came here because there was no future for me and my children in the Ivory Coast,” Jeannette says. “I wanted my children to have a better future, a better life than I had as a child.“

The Ivory Coast has been mired in political conflict, including a civil war and ethnic strife, for more than two decades. Nearly half its population lives in poverty and about a million people are considered to be internally displaced persons or refugees.

“Most of the time when I was there, there was strikes,” Jeannette says. “When there are strikes they burn and riot — it depends on the parties. There is violence in the street.”

Her husband worked numerous jobs when he was in the United States, the last of which, as a bus driver, provided health benefits. She was able to go to school and they could provide for their children.

Since his detention and eventual deportation, however, money has become an issue, she says, as is the extra effort that she is forced to put in as a single mother.

“It was easier with two incomes,” Jeannette notes. “When he left, I had to do everything on my own. I had to get them to school, pick them up, feed them, go to work.”

She cannot apply for public assistance because she does not have her own green card – though she has been allowed to remain in the country on a “cancelation of removal” for humanitarian reasons.

Kouame, who still lives in Newark, says her daughter suffers from depression brought on by her husband’s absence. She locks herself in her room and sometimes struggles in school because she has trouble focusing.

“She used to be active, but now she is always in her bedroom,” Kouame says. “Other children, they go through the same struggle. It is not fair for the children.”

Kadi Cisse who lives in East Orange, says she and her sisters were forced to grow up quickly when her mother was sent back to the Ivory Coast 14 years ago. Her parents had come to New Jersey in the late 1980s, had three children, and worked hard to make a life for the family. Her mother worked at Newark Liberty International Airport until her visa expired and she was detained and eventually deported.

That made her father a single parent, though he was unable to be around very much because he worked double shifts to earn enough to support his family and send money to his wife. The girls spent a lot of time alone, though friends of the family would check in and bring them food.

“As a kid I wasn’t able to do a lot of things,” Kadi says. “We couldn’t have new clothes. When mom was here we had new clothes every season. After she left, my sisters couldn’t go to the prom. Every summer I worked, even when I was 11, even to make $25 a week, so I could save money for clothes.”

Their hardships, however, were relatively minor when compared with what her mom had to endure in the Ivory Coast. Her mother had been in the United States for more than a decade, so she had little connection to the country where she was being returned.

“She faced a lot of hardships,” Kadi says. “The was war going on when she was there. My sisters and I would send her money. She didn’t have a place to stay. It was a rural area, and she couldn’t go out.”

In the end, her mother was able to come back to the United States — but Kadi calls it a bittersweet victory.

“My dad and my sisters, we always dreamed of being able to reconnect. We kept faith for 15 years. It was one of my dad’s greatest dreams,” she says. But he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and died just a few months before his wife returned.

“I know that when they come up with these laws and stuff it is always America’s best interests that they say are at heart, but there are so many American citizens with immigrant parents. They have to take the children into consideration.”

Kouame agreed.

“Because of the children, they should allow them to say,” she says. “It’s not fair to have them separated. They need both a father and mother to bring them up. They need to leave the family united.”

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