When 15-year-old Soleil Garcia of Lincoln Park thinks about her dad, Jorge, she misses two things in particular: his jokes and his homework help.
She remembers how he loved making the family laugh with a silly joke and how no matter how tired he was from a long day working as a landscaper, he’d sit down and help her with her homework.
“He would help me in math,” she says. He was good at math.
But Soleil and her 13-year-old brother Jorge Jr. don’t get that in-person homework help from their dad anymore or his dumb dad jokes. In fact, they don’t get to see him very much at all – and it isn’t because he passed away or chose to leave.
They miss out on having their father in their day-to-day lives because back in January, after more than a decade of fighting to get his immigration status fixed, he was deported to Mexico City as an undocumented immigrant.
“We followed everything he was supposed to be doing to a tee,” Jorge’s wife Cindy explains. “But when we went for our visit, they told us that time was up and that he had to go.”
Due in part to changes in immigration policy and how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) handles people who are undocumented, stories like the Garcia family’s are becoming more and more common. And while lawmakers in Washington continue to talk about immigration reform, these families are adjusting to a new normal and the struggles of parenting together while worlds apart.
An alarming trend
As of 2016, Michigan is home to some 100,000 undocumented immigrants. Although the possibility of deportation has always loomed in their lives regardless of criminal history, new interpretations of the law have made the possibility more likely for families.
“An uptick happened after this (presidential) administration took over. Prior to this administration, ICE had a priority. They had a certain list of people that were priority targets,” explains Abril Valdes, an immigration rights attorney with the ACLU of Michigan. “When people that had committed serious crimes, domestic violence (or) child endangerment came into the criminal system, ICE was usually alerted and (that person) would be placed into removal proceedings. Those priorities are gone now. Everyone is a target.”
In the past, an undocumented mother might get stopped for a traffic infraction but wouldn’t be seen as a threat, so she wouldn’t be arrested for being undocumented. Now, however, an undocumented mother pulled over for a traffic infraction may be picked up, processed and deported like an undocumented violent criminal would be, according to Valdes.
From fiscal year 2016 to 2017, Michigan and Ohio saw a 117 percent increase in the deportation of undocumented immigrants with no criminal history and only a 23 percent increase in deportations of those with a criminal history, the Detroit Free Press reported in March.
“I see a lot of families being affected,” says Patricia Compos, a psychologist with Southwest Solutions. “So it’s not just gang leaders who are being deported, it’s fathers and mothers, increasingly, who are being deported, oftentimes with no criminal history.”
Jorge Garcia, for example, had a clean record when ICE decided that his time was up at his yearly check-in. In fact, according to his wife, his record was so clean that he was allowed to stay through the holidays before being removed.
Of course, not all families are lucky enough to get that extra time.
Pjetro Gojcevic of Sterling Heights says his wife Cile fled Albania after a friend was kidnapped, sold into prostitution and was later found dead. Fearing the same fate, she came to America in 2000 and spent 18 years trying to get her citizenship before being arrested during a scheduled monthly check-in in April. He hasn’t seen his wife in person since.
“She went in every month and she usually took her children with her, but she said the heck with it, I’m not going to bother their school,” he explains. “She just went by herself and they arrested her right there on the spot.”
When Cile was sent back to Albania, Pjetro tried to balance work, caring for their three children and taking care of his 74-year-old ailing mother. But the responsibility became too much for Pjetro and the absence too great for Cile, so the couple decided to send their son Marash, 16, and two daughters Migena, 11, and Martina, 9, to live with their mother in Albania.
“I know I could have kept them here, but there was no way. I have no idea what I would do because I couldn’t leave the kids alone when I went to work to pay my bills and feed them and everything and also be here for them. I can’t be a mother,” he says. “And besides, my wife was devastated. Without the kids she thought, ‘Oh my God, have I been so bad in life that is God punishing me?’ She wouldn’t have survived mentally without the kids.”
The children left the United States on July 10 and arrived in Albania the next day. While Cile finds support in community members she knew in her youth, the children struggle to assimilate.
“My oldest one, the oldest daughter, had a hard time (on the first day of school),” Gojcevic explains. “She’s very smart and she was crying because she couldn’t be as knowledgeable as she’s supposed to be because she couldn’t communicate.”
While the Gojcevic kids are learning life in Albania, the Fleury kids of Madison Heights stay here and deal with the distance as best they can.
Their mom, Laura, came to the U.S. at 20 years old to seek refuge after one of her brothers was killed. She was placed under ICE surveillance last year after a neighbor called the police and accused the family of hitting their car.
When she was arrested at her home on Oct. 2, 2017, it came as a total shock to her family.
“It was just a regular Monday. It was about 10:30 in the morning. I was at work and she called from a Detroit number and said, ‘I’m at the ICE office,'” her husband, Doug, recalls. “It’s the worst thing I could have heard short of one of my kids getting hurt. It’s something we always had in the back of our minds and always feared for, so it left a huge pit. … Just an unbelievable mix of emotion: shock, fear, terror. It’s hard to describe.”
With the support of his parents, sister and his brother-in-law, Doug was able to tell their three daughters, Ella, 14, Sofia, 12, and Camila, 8, what had happened. All three broke down into hysterics.
“It was just complete shutdown. Anger, confusion, panic attacks, fits,” he says.
Although Doug and his girls were allowed to visit with their mom during her detainment, they had a tough time in school and experienced changes to their eating and sleeping habits as they attempted to process what was going on.
“When I found out, obviously, my reaction was crying but I didn’t want to be around anyone,” Ella says. “I wanted to be isolated by myself.”
Sofia and Camila reacted similarly.
“I wanted to lay in bed and cry, stuff my face in the pillow and scream,” Camila adds.
What makes matters worse for her family is that since her deportation just before Thanksgiving last year, Laura has missed the holidays, Mother’s Day, confirmations, a first communion and everyone’s birthdays.
“She hasn’t been able to share any of that and for what? Because of a piece of paper,” Doug says. “Ultimately that’s what this is about. A piece of paper.”
It’s not surprising that the Fleury sisters have had a rough time, either. Experts say that oftentimes, the people left behind when a person is deported experience adverse effects from the trauma of having a loved one forcibly taken from them.
In addition, they could develop negative opinions of government and government entities that could follow them through life.
“Young kids are developing ideas about relationship, trust and the world,” Compos explains. “One of the things that happens as we grow up is we figure out who we trust or don’t trust, who’s safe and who’s not safe. One of the unfortunate things that can happen is that children, instead of seeing the police and law enforcement in general as someone to be trusted or to turn to, they see them as people to be avoided, people who don’t have their best interests in mind.”
Cindy Garcia has experienced this firsthand.
“My own granddaughter panics when she sees a cop. Her mom’s a DACA recipient and maybe she’s worried about her, but she’s 4,” she says. “I had to train her that police officers are nice people and that I need her to run to them and not away from them. … They are traumatized. (These kids) are completely traumatized.”
And the adults in the situation aren’t much better off. Parents themselves often develop the same types of emotional difficulties that their kids do. Sometimes, this becomes too much for the relationship and the families fall apart.
“What would you do if your husband or wife was detained?” Compos asks. “You want to be with your husband or your wife, but your children’s lives are in this country. In many cases that is the end of the relationship.”
In the event that Jorge Garcia can’t return to the United States, Cindy has plans to move her children to Texas, so that they can visit their father on the weekends. Meanwhile Pjetro, who was originally from Yugoslavia, doesn’t know when or if he’ll ever see his family again.
“I can’t leave because I can’t come back in and I can’t go anywhere without documentation anyway,” he explains. “Who’s to say when I’m going to see my kids again?”
The emotional effects aren’t the only consequences. Families’ finances usually take a hit, too.
“We have to live on a very strict budget because we have two households now,” Pjetro says. “I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to provide the same.”
The Fleury family is experiencing similar troubles after losing the secondary income Laura helped to bring in.
“She was actually making burritos in the morning, so I could take those to sell on the job. That was part of our income,” he says. “That was a huge hit on our income and on our livelihood.”
And the added cost of things he needed to buy for his wife while she was in jail before she was deported put even more strain on their bank account.
“I had to pay money for her to call us. Then I had to pay for her to be able to buy things that cost way too much, and I had to pay to put money into that account. That’s on top of losing our income that she was providing,” he adds.
Family distress and finances aside, communities as a whole feel the effects of deportations, too.
In addition to losing the tax revenue brought in by working undocumented immigrants – and in some cases the jobs created by those who have started small businesses – schools, churches and other organizations lose valued volunteers.
“(My wife and her friend) always did what they could for the church and when they did it, it encouraged others to participate and bring their kids in,” Pjetro says. “It is a total bad ordeal, not only for the family, but for the community, for the church, for everybody. It really had a devastating effect on everything.”
Hoping for change
Ultimately, all three local families say that if they had a viable route to “get in line” and get their citizenship, all three would have. Unfortunately, according to Valdes, the system is tough for undocumented immigrants to navigate.
“There is no line,” she says. “People who have come here for 20-plus years, are undocumented and who have citizen children; there’s no way for them to become citizens. The child can’t sponsor them if the parent came here undocumented. When the parent applies to get a green card, they have to leave the country and re-enter but as soon as they step out of the country, they have to pay a penalty of 10 years before they can come back in.”
On top of that, she says, the system has a huge backlog and is processing years behind.
That said, a lot of work is being done on a local level to try to make changes and help local immigrants.
Raquel Castañeda-López, a Detroit City Council member, says lawmakers in the city have a good working relationship with ICE and have created meetings that local immigrants can attend in order to learn their rights. They’ve also rolled out a languages access plan, so that immigrants can get the information they need in a language that they understand.
In addition, organizations like Michigan United offer opportunities for local community members to learn how they can help immigrants around them understand their rights and connect them with resources.
“These are people that we are in charge of caring for,” she says. “We as cities, states and as a country need to live up to our values of being a place that welcomes people and gives opportunity to thrive and live healthy, happy lives and do everything we can to curb negativity.”
But while local families facing the prospect of deportation cling to hope, those who have already lived through it struggle to adjust.
“(We’re) living day by day,” Garcia says. “I don’t think it will ever be the same until he comes back.”
If you or someone you know is at risk of deportation, Adonis Flores of Michigan United suggests that you talk to an immigration attorney sooner rather than later.
“If they are in custody, it’s hard to get council,” he says “(But) for people who are still under the radar it’s important they get a consultation either with us or another non-profit or ally (and that) they get consultation as soon as possible.”
Beware of public notaries or non-accredited representatives that charge fees but get limited results. Instead, seek help with organizations like Michigan United, The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center or the ACLU of Michigan, which can hook you up with a legitimate representative, resources and other information.
Michigan United was founded in 2012 after a merger of the Michigan Organizing Project and the Alliance for Immigrant Rights. It is made up of churches and labor and community groups that work to end racism, poverty and inequality in Michigan and protect the rights of all.
The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center is a legal resource center that works toward equality for Michigan’s immigrant communities.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan is the state’s branch of the national organization that works to defend and preserve the liberty of all individuals in the United States.
If you are a citizen of the United States – born here or naturalized – who wants to protect undocumented immigrants in your community, read these tips on how you can help.
Christina Clark is Metro Parent’s associate editor
Photos by Lauren Jeziorski