The Stranger Within the Gates

Ed Guthero September/October 2017

A haunting close-up image of an Arizona mother, 36-year-old Garcia de Royos, awaiting expulsion to Mexico, sadly peering through the metal mesh confinement window of a deportation van, flashed across the news services. Though she had lived in America for decades, de Rayos was being separated from her home and family. She had been seized by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement)agentswhen she reported for her regular check-in, something she had been faithfully doing for the previous eight years.

Outside the immigration offices, Garcia de Royo’s typical Hispanic-American teen-aged daughter earnestly spoke to a crowd of onlookers and supporters. “Seeing my mom in that van was unexplainable,” . . . she said. “No one should ever have their mother taken away . . . she was just working to support us . . . no one should be packing her mother’s suitcase,”. . . she fought back tears.

The riveting dual images of a mother behind the metal mesh and her young daughter pleading with America not to tear her parent from their family put faces on an expanded deportation dilemma.

Unrest and fear has been palpable in immigrant communities throughout the United States as a new American president, Donald Trump, came to office on a wave of anti-immigration sentiment that translated into accelerated crackdowns on undocumented residents. Initially the new U.S. administration stated they were concentrating on deporting the “bad hombres”—those who had been convicted of crimes and were a danger to society. However, the administration has broadened the criteria, and the country is now seeing cases of harmless, hardworking Hispanic mothers and fathers facing deportation—people who are hardly a threat to the nation, and more akin to a typical American family being swept up in the crackdown.

“Bottom line: separating mothers and children is wrong. That type of thing is where we depart from border security and get into violating human rights,” says Texas congressman Henry Cueller.

It needs to be understood that for decades the immigrant labor force has been an integral part of the nation’s economy; the agricultural industry in particular literally depends on them to survive. They are so vital that, in the dairy industry alone, “mass deportations would cost the U.S. economy $32 billion, in addition to doubling the cost of milk,” says Laurie Fischler, president and founder of the American Dairy Coalition. That is in only one segment of the agricultural industry. The entire agricultural industry is deeply concerned; as there has always been a symbiotic relationship between American farmers and field workers. The Labor Department estimates that about half of the nation’s 2.5 million farmworkers are undocumented. It has also been repeatedly stressed that “domestic workers show no interest in doing the jobs that immigrants and migrant workers do.”

The children of undocumented immigrant workers often entered the country at an early age or were born here. This is the only home they have ever known; they are in every way American kids, with the same dreams as their classmates. Daniela Vargas, 22, described as a straight-A honor roll student while in high school and a talented musician, had been attending university with dreams of becoming a math teacher. She was brought to the U.S. at the age of 7. In mid-February she watched in horror as her father and brother were handcuffed and taken into custody by ICE. Terrified, Daniela locked all the house doors and hid herself in a bedroom closest for five hours. ICE agents broke down the door: shouting her name, they pointed their guns at Daniela, then arrested her as well. She was detained and released, but there was more duress to come.

In early March; her father and brother still detained, young Daniela courageously spoke out at a news conference convened to bring attention to area families who had been affected by deportation. Immediately following the event, the car in which Vargas was a passenger was pulled over, and ICE agents arrested the Mississippi honor roll student again. She had been in the process of renewing a lapsed DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) petition.

In early May, Granger, Indiana, residents, saddened by the cold reality of the deportation of local, well-liked business owner Robert Beristain, spoke out against the expanded policies that affected not only Beristain, but also thousands of other undocumented immigrants with no criminal records.

Roberto Beristain had lived in the United States for 20 years, and his wife and children are all U.S. citizens. He worked diligently as a cook, eventually becoming the owner of Eddie’s Steak Shed, a Granger restaurant that employs up to 20 people. Ironically Roberto’s work ethic and influence as a family man in the community is an example of the “American dream” image that so long has symbolized the strength of immigration in the nation’s identity. Though he had entered the U.S. undocumented in 1998, he had later been legally issued a work permit, a Social Security number, and a driver’s license. He has been a longtime contributing, tax-paying member of the Granger community, and his deportation had neighbors and friends rallying to his defense. Such incidents reflect the cruel paradox of the expanded deportation policy, and they are occurring at an alarming rate.

Immigration is a hot topic, and it is easy to throw one blanket over all the undocumented people in the country. No one is disputing the need to deport the true criminal element: cartel and drug connections, dangerous gang members, etc. Yet there is no honest comparison between the expulsion of decent, hardworking people and a convicted gang member or felon. Is tearing apart a family that is a positive presence in a community by citing some past minor infraction really making America a safer place? a more righteous place? a freer place?

There comes a point where the letter of the law and the spirit of the law must be humanely considered. Is anyone sleeping safer tonight because Roberto Beristain is separated from his family and the 20 employees who depend on their jobs at his restaurant? Or are we safer if Maribel Trujillo Diaz’s young daughter, subject to seizures, can no longer count on her working mother?

There is a disturbing irony that a country built by a diverse cultural quilt of immigrants should paint so many productive people with the same brush. Separating parents from their children or taking away the dreams of immigrant youth, who are in reality often typical American kids, is not within the same mandate of seeking out the truly dangerous criminal element.

In New York Harbor the Statue of Liberty still stands, more than 300 feet high and holding a lighted torch that has been a beacon to those seeking refuge and new beginnings for decades. A symbol of shelter and tolerance, the poignant words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are inscribed on her base. She has come to represent a country enriched by immigrants and a concept far bigger than its vast coast-to-coast landscape. The lady with the lamp does not have folded arms.

More than 3,000 miles away across America’s sprawling vista in the state of Arizona a young Hispanic girl, who by all appearances could be your neighbor’s teenage daughter in any U.S. town, is standing numb as she stares at the metal mesh window of a deportation van. Behind the metal mesh her mother stares back.

It is a crucial time in history. Partisan issues should never override human compassion.

Article Author: Ed Guthero

Ed Guthero has had a critically applauded career as a book and periodical designer, artist, and photographer, and a legacy ensured by years as a university lecturer. Here he shows another skill as an author. He writes from Boise, Idaho.