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Family Life Under the Stigma of Undocumented Immigration

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“You have reached the voicemail box of…”

“You have reached the voicemail box of…”

“You have reached the voicemail box of…”

Panic set in.  I was supposed to get dinner with him at Chili’s, my pregnancy cravings running wild for those honey chipotle chicken crispers.  We had just talked about it on the phone less than an hour before.  After a few minutes of waiting in the car, his family saw me, came outside and said, “He was pulled over by the police driving home in the work truck and they took him.”  I sped back home, tears streaming down my face, and frantically told my parents what was going on.

We rushed to the police station, even though he told me not to come.  He didn’t want me to see him there under those circumstances.  When we got there, an officer told us he didn’t have any documentation, so there was no way they could release him.  I went back to his apartment, scrambling to find anything I could that would show that he had lived here a long time – his high school diploma, his bartending license, some cash he had, thinking maybe it would help.  When I got back, the officer sneered, “I couldn’t release him if I wanted to.”

The officers said I could go in to see him.  He stood up in his socks, paint and dust still speckled in his hair after a long day at work, asking why I came when he told me not to. But I could see the fear that now replaced the pride in his eyes.  I don’t remember what we said to each other.  The young officer walked me back out.  He told me he was the one who pulled him over.  I could feel the remorse as he retold the story – the story that was beginning to pave the path to deportation, all starting with a routine traffic stop.  “He pulled out of the gas station and turned left where there was a ‘no left turn’ sign.  I had to pull him over.  He’s such a good guy.  He’s really such a good guy.”

Such a good guy among many other good guys.  Undocumented guys.  Hardworking, ambitious, and family-oriented guys.  He was doing all that he could for the family we were about to start.  The day he was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the court officer let me see him before they escorted him out through the back.  He kissed my recently protruding stomach.  “You’re pregnant?” she asked.  I nodded, my face red and swollen from crying.  “It’s okay.  He’ll be back soon.”  I watched as he walked away with the officers, shackled by the wrists and ankles, like a dangerous criminal.  I later found out that she, the court officer, was the one that called ICE to report him, violating her job description.

Three years later, he says he doesn’t want to tell our son that he was ever detained or that he skipped his meals in the detention center, trading his food for paper, pens, and stamps to write letters to me that I still have not received.  But I think these facts are important for my son with caramel skin, chocolate eyes, and dark brown hair to know, because being undocumented will never be an allegation made against me, with my German last name, dark blonde hair and skin the color of Wonder Bread.

My son, because of his father’s ethnicity, may be labeled a rapist or a drug dealer, for those who feed into the rhetoric of our President-Elect.  He will not be judged by his humor or his character, but for the origin of his last name. I want him to know that his father was able to overcome the struggles he went through, was able to receive Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and was able to raise him with me, not through phone calls or letters to his home country or visits to a detention center.  I want my son to know that, as that young officer got to know his father, he realized that not all immigrants are bad.  And I want my son to be able to live a life free of fear for his Guatemalan roots that play such a big part in his life.  I want him to proudly speak both of the languages he knows in public without having to feel like he needs to assimilate to the majority group threatened by his culture.

There are roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States today.  They have children, they work, and they pay taxes that they cannot claim later.  They live in constant fear that they will be taken from their children who are citizens of the United States.  The year after my son was born, there were 275,000 babies born to undocumented immigrants in this country.  Think of how likely these numbers make it for US citizens to know an undocumented immigrant, personally or in passing, and probably unbeknownst to many.  But studies show that, the more meaningful relationships a person has with people of different races and ethnicities, the fewer prejudices he or she will have towards others.  I want people to get to know my son for who he is, shaped greatly into the fun-loving kid that he is becoming by his huge extended Guatemalan family.  Maybe knowing that my little boy almost lost his Papa will make even one person understand the experience of the huge group of children born to undocumented immigrants in our country.

Rebecca Schneider is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Boston.  She is using a pen name for reasons of family security, but correspondence can be sent to her through Professor Jeffrey Pugh (jeffrey.pugh@umb.edu).

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