‘Home’ is with My Family

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Story from The Chicago Bureau.

CHICAGO -- Less than a month after Barack Obama was reelected by an increasingly diverse America, immigrants in Chicago and across the United States are discovering that there will be no immediate reprieve from Homeland Security raids in the president’s second term.

Immigration arrestAs droves of undocumented laborers are arrested in a couple of Chicago’s first post-election raids, Latinos in Chicago are at once outraged and fearful for the future of their families, community leaders said.

Two weeks ago, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents entered the Chicago Pallet Company in Elk Grove Village and arrested 34 on immigration violations. The arrested men, some speaking no English, were all detained before most were released to family on bond following immediate grassroots protests held in response to the arrests.

For now, as these 34 await court dates on charges of violating immigration law, they have avoided direct deportation – something that is becoming more the norm under the Obama administration, according to local and national ICE statistics. In 2011, Chicago ICE deported 11,891 immigrants, a 14 percent increase from 2010 and 20 percent from 2009. Since Obama entered office Homeland Security removed 359,795 to 393,457 immigrants annually, more than that overseen by any other president in history.

As of Friday, all 34 Chicago Pallet workers have been released, some with the help of U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez.

Still, damage was done. Posting bond meant many families had to scrounge up anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 to win their release. Some faced a steeper bond, having had prior deportation records, with immigrant families raising over $70,000 in total. All now face unemployment. Lives were put on hold, uncertainty pervading everything from their futures in the United States to the source of their next meals.

And because several arrested workers are fathers of U.S.-born children, the threat of deportation also raises the real possibility of family separation.

For up to a week after the raid, the Rev. Jose Landaverde of the Catholic Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission, located a few blocks west of the Cook County courthouse and jail, rallied church members to protest outside the Chicago ICE offices on behalf of the workers.

“Right now we are very upset with the administration of President Obama because he is deporting people, dividing people and taking away the families of United States citizens,” Landaverde said soon after the raid. “The effects are very painful. I don’t know how these politicians are going to deal with the psychological impact they are dealing to our Latino community.”

The arrests at Chicago Pallet were the result of an investigation into the business’ employment practices, wrote ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro in an email to The Chicago Bureau.

“(Homeland Security’s) comprehensive worksite enforcement strategy reflects a renewed focus targeting criminal aliens and employers who cultivate illegal workplaces by breaking the country’s laws and knowingly hiring illegal workers,” she said.

In her statement, Montenegro added that ICE must address employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers as a matter of protecting jobs for the lawful workforce. In response to immigrant rights activists’ contention that if they had not protested outside Chicago ICE, the 34 workers would have been deported outright, Montenegro said ICE has no set policy on posting bond.

“(ICE) may opt to exercise prosecutorial discretion in certain cases,” she said. “However, the agency may also choose to pursue enforcement action against individuals and set appropriate bonds, as our resources permit.  ICE determines these actions on a case-by-case basis.”

The unique stress that comes with the imminent danger of family separation can be a roadblock to healthy development for many U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. Magali Renteria, a volunteer immigrant rights activist, said the daily uncertainty suffered by these children puts them at higher risk of performing poorly in school and even making decisions that could set them afoul of the law.

“I know a lot of them go down the wrong road,” she said. “I see a lot of kids where their parents don’t tell them what’s wrong, what’s the issue, because they don’t want to worry them. You have to tell them what’s going on, and that doesn’t always happen. I see a lot of gangbangers and their parents are undocumented. They grow up with this mentality of ‘I don’t care.’”

Renteria, 20, protested outside the Chicago ICE offices every day for a week following the Nov. 29 raid. She is a citizen. But still, she feels compelled – even responsible – to care for the welfare of the greater Latino community, including the undocumented.

“I see a lot of people who become citizens of this country and they just forget about the other people,” Renteria said. “They go, ‘Well, you can just close the borders now because I’m here.’ I also see people like my mother, my father, people from this church, people from the protest who feel like even though they’re citizens that they should give something back.”

Families of undocumented immigrants detained by ICE have limited options going forward in their dealings with Homeland Security. Often, navigating the process for the first time can be confusing, and the emotional trauma of not knowing where a loved one is during the initial hours after an arrest is made can exacerbate a sense of crisis, according to immigrant advocates.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission is one community organization that provides assistance for families engaged with ICE; the International Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights is another. ICIRR, based in Chicago, operates a deportation crisis hotline, which with its family support network attempts to give immediate and ongoing support for immigrants.

Carrie Fox, ICIRR family support organizer, said families facing deportation often find that other issues – financial and psychological– can come up. As was the case here, arrested immigrants often face the pressures of providing for families without a job.

To counter this, ICIRR refers people to social service agencies – many themselves suffering under the strain of a budget crisis and poor economy – to alleviate meeting basic needs. They also seek out religious leaders of a host of faiths and attorneys versed in immigration law.

In the case of mixed families – including some citizens and some undocumented residents, Fox said ICIRR advises parents to create some kind of contingency plan for the care of their children in the case that, despite many and sometimes pricey efforts, they are still deported.

“It’s not something that people like to think about,” she said. “It’s not a pleasant idea – it’s a very scary and nerve-wracking idea, being separated from your children, but (alternate plans) is something that we always encourage.”

If parents are designated for deportation, families face the difficult choice of whether to leave their children in America or return to their countries of origin with them. Fox said in her experience, generally U.S.-born children will stay in the country when their parents are deported.

“It’s where they’ve been raised and where they go to school, and where the families know they’ll have opportunities for their future,” Fox said. “We hear from a lot of families that that’s why they’re here, to provide a better future for their children. But that of course creates the issue of family separation that is so tough.”

Yet, at least one Mexican family affected by the raid on Chicago Pallet would rather stick together than hold out for what opportunities American citizenship may provide.

Silvia Munoc, the 19-year-old daughter of Efarin Munoc, one of the men arrested in late November, said even though she moved to the U.S. at the age of five, she is prepared to return to Mexico with her parents and younger U.S.-born siblings because “home” is where her family is.

Munoc said her family now faces basic challenges of maintaining the house and providing meals. Nevertheless, nine months pregnant with a baby girl due Dec. 31, Munoc is looking forward. She said her father’s struggles have taught her to work hard, and she predicts being bilingual in Mexico will open up competitive job opportunities for her and her siblings.  

“All I care about is my family and I being together,” she said. “I don’t care about anything else. We all have to face fears, and we all have to work and struggle. Not everything is going to be easy.”

Photo courtesy of ICE. 

Susan Du, 20, is the Managing Editor of The Chicago Bureau and a senior
staffer of The Daily Northwestern, for which she has worked as a writer,
photographer, cartoonist and City Editor. She has been published in a
variety of student and professional publications, including Popular
Science, India Tribune and Chicago Art Magazine.